20 Colo. ranchers flee elk business

April 13, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
About 20 elk ranchers in northeastern Colorado will slaughter their animals and get out of the business under a deal cut this week with the state and federal government.

Stuck with the stigma - and risk - of raising elk in a region where free-roaming, chronic wasting disease-infected wild animals surround their operations, ranch owners pushed for the agreement, saying they couldn't market their elk.

"I just feel like there's too many things out of my control," said Chad Lange, co-owner of Twin Buttes Elk Farm. Lange said he will take the buyout and shut down his operation, located about 150 miles northeast of Denver. Lange said he takes every precaution to prevent infection in his captive herd of about 100 elk, and that none of his animals have CWD. But he can't take the chance that wild deer or elk might pass the disease through his fence.

The indemnity agreement means the government will kill an estimated 1,000 privately owned elk and pay ranchers up to $3,000 apiece for the creatures. The animals must be killed because there is no way to test live elk for the disease.

As part of the deal, breeders can't re-stock their land with replacement elk, though they can bring in different animals, such as cattle. All of the slaughtered elk will be tested for CWD.

Linh Truong, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said the deal was reached this week during a conference call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA will provide the money to buy out the breeders.

Exactly how many elk ranches will participate, how many elk will be put to death, and how much money will be provided wasn't clear Friday. Neither Truong, nor a spokeswoman for the USDA could provide figures.

In March, state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham predicted about 1,000 elk would be killed as part of the agreement, and that 90 percent of ranchers in the so-called CWD "endemic area" would participate. A breeder directory lists at least two dozen elk ranches in the endemic area. The state is home to about 160 elk ranches.

Already, 1,724 domestic elk exposed to CWD have been slaughtered in Colorado since an outbreak exposed nine ranches last fall. Of those slaughtered, fewer than 3 percent were found to be infected.

Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association, said it makes sense for ranchers in the endemic area to call it quits.

He cites state rules requiring elk ranches in the endemic area to be CWD-free for five years before elk can be sold to other operations. If an elk were found with the disease after four years, for example, the five-year clock would start again.

"There's always the threat of infection," Walker said. "If we don't have CWD today, will we have it tomorrow? What if we turn down the money today, and get CWD tomorrow?"

At least one northeast Colorado elk breeder said he won't take the USDA buyout. Ric Hansen, who owns 110 elk just east of Fort Collins, said he'll attempt to ride out the CWD storm.

His operation - Top Rack Elk Ranch - uses artificial insemination to produce genetically superior elk, Hansen said. The USDA buyout won't provide enough money, even at a time when elk prices are depressed, he said.

"Our animals are worth twice," what USDA pays, he said. Also, Hansen said, he spent $40,000 to $50,000 building two miles of double fencing to help keep wildlife out, and his elk in. He's not ready to surrender that investment.

"I certainly think we can keep ourselves clean," he said.

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