Coloradans Fear the Spread Of a Kind of Mad Elk Disease

October 28, 2001 The New York Times by Mindy Sink
State officials here fear that some elk that may be infected with a fatal illness were sold to private ranches in as many as 15 states and could spread the disease to the wild elk and deer throughout the nation.

The state has confirmed six cases of chronic wasting disease, the elk and deer equivalent of mad cow disease. Five cases have been traced to one ranch in northeastern Colorado, where the elk were raised, sold and transported for breeding. State officials also said that over the last five years there appeared to have been 245 sales of infected elk to ranches in states as far east as Pennsylvania. "We're trying to get our arms around it and figure out the extent of the exposure," said Wayne Cunningham, state veterinarian with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The state has quarantined 1,300 elk. On Friday, 9 were killed to be tested. There is no live test.

"This is a very, very important native species, and that's why we're so concerned," said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The Division of Wildlife has killed more than 50 wild deer and elk in areas near the ranches where two elk were known to have the disease. A small ranch in New Mexico that bought an elk from the ranch where the infected elk came from plans to destroy its own herd of 14 as a preventive measure.

Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease in beef cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people. It is not known if chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to people who eat deer or elk meat or come in contact with animal fluids. Nor is it known how animals become infected with, though it is believed that soil can be contaminated by the remains of an infected animal for decades.

"We don't know how it's transmitted," said David Ditloff, media relations manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Mont. "The only thing we do know is that it's always fatal to deer and elk and it will contain itself if left isolated in the wild populations."

The creatures draw spectators and hunters to the state -- about a $1 billion infusion to the economy. There are more than 250,000 wild elk and 550,000 deer in Colorado.

Elk are raised on private ranches for breeding, private hunting, meat and velvet antlers, which can be used for human nutritional supplements or medicines. There are about 14,000 captive elk in Colorado.

"Shipping animals across states, maybe to a game farm 1,000 miles away, could lead to widespread distribution of chronic wasting disease," Mr. Ditloff said. "A wild animal is not going to travel that far to migrate."

The federal Department of Agriculture has set aside more than $2 million to reimburse elk ranchers who lose their herds.

Craig McConnell owns the Elk Echo and All American Antler Ranches near Stoneham, Colo., where he has 650 elk, all of which will be killed. At this point, elk from his ranches appear to be the origination point of the outbreak.

Mr. McConnell, 46, whose pickup truck bounces across the prairie with license plates that read "Mr. Elk," said he stood to lose a $4 million investment. "In a good market, my very best bull could be worth $4,000," he said. "Now they'll toast him for $3,000. It's devastating."

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