Elk ranchers lock horns with DOW

November 18, 2001 Denver Post by Theo Stein

Sunday, November 18, 2001 - Elk ranchers are squaring off with the Colorado Division of Wildlife over the recent outbreak of chronic wasting disease in their captive herds.

Nine Colorado herds and 1,400 elk are now under quarantine as state agriculture officials try to corral the disease. With ranchers facing heavy losses as quarantined herds are killed to be tested for the fatal brain-wasting malady, some are looking to assign blame for the mess.

"It's a 20/20 hindsight thing," said Ron Walker, an elk breeder and member of the state's alternative livestock board. "They need to 'fess up to what happened, then we can get over it and go on."

Wildlife officials say their handling of infected research animals and wild herds is defensible in light of what was known about CWD at the time.

"We've done not a perfect job but a respectable job," said Mike Miller, a DOW veterinarian. "The work we've done here is pioneering. Sometimes it takes a while for agencies who manage by science to understand the magnitude of a totally new problem like this."

But many elk ranchers say the DOW has done too little to control the disease in wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, where it has been recognized since 1967.

They say infected game in the 15,000-square-mile endemic area straddling the Wyoming line threatens the future of the industry. Veterinarians acknowledge that one of the quarantined ranches was probably infected by wild game.

So ranchers welcomed last week's announcement by division officials that for the first time, the area will be managed to keep deer populations low in hopes of controlling the spread of CWD.

"If the DOW needs to take painful steps to eliminate the disease in their animals, we certainly expect them to do that," said Steve Wolcott, the other elk breeder on the alternative livestock board. "Many of us also face painful steps. But we don't have any choice if we're going to eliminate this disease."

Despite promises to work together, ranchers are still chapped by the harsh way the DOW regulated them until 1996, when friendly legislators allowed elk ranching to seek refuge in the Agriculture Department.

And the desire to assign responsibility for the epidemic, despite gaps in scientific knowledge of the disease, has led to speculation being cited as fact.

"I'm afraid what's happening here is people are going back and trying to fill in the blanks and convince themselves they have answers," said Miller, the DOW wildlife veterinarian who has done much of the groundbreaking research on CWD. "Sometimes, the hardest thing to admit is that we don't know. And unless we can find some good documentation, we may never know."

Some ranchers said they believe CWD originated at a DOW-run wildlife research station in Fort Collins in 1967 because that's where it was first identified. Gene Schoonveld, a DOW biologist, recently said that several sheep he kept as a student in the late 1960s were possibly infected with a similar disease called scrapie. Those sheep could have passed it to deer in adjacent pens, he said.

Searches of the few records that remain from the area have found no mention of scrapie at the pens. And leading experts on the disease, including Miller, say maps of infection rates in the endemic area point to a Wyoming origin.

But research on captive deer at the pens makes agriculture officials nervous. On Friday, state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said an ongoing study to see if healthy cattle penned with infected deer could get the disease should be terminated immediately because of the potential threat to the livestock industry.

So what gave rise to CWD? Some researchers think CWD did jump from sheep to deer. But scrapie has been found in sheep flocks in many other parts of the country, while CWD is limited to the endemic area.

The other leading theory is that CWD may be a naturally occurring disease that has existed for many decades but simply went undiscovered.

How it got into ranched elk is similarly unclear. One theory supported by Cunningham speculates that a handful of mule deer given by the DOW to the Denver Zoo between 1971 and 1991 were infected. Other deer from the zoo's herd were sold in 1984 and 1989 to Bear Country, a South Dakota menagerie near Mount Rushmore where a CWD infection was discovered in 1997.

But there's no direct evidence any of the zoo deer came from Fort Collins. And no CWD-positive deer or elk were ever reported at the zoo.

Miller said another claim, that the DOW released potentially infected animals back into the wild, is true.

Deer found to be in declining health in a late 1960s nutritional study in Fort Collins were released into the wild by researchers who thought the animals were simply missing essential parts of their natural diet. Throughout the late '70s, wild bucks were captured to breed with penned does, then released.

"That's one of things we did which in hindsight probably didn't involve the best judgment," said Miller, who noted that subsequent surveys of wild herds showed CWD was widespread in northern Colorado as well as Wyoming by then. "So it doesn't appear it had much effect."

But the ranchers' basic complaint, that wild game could infect captive herds, appears to have already happened at least once.

Investigators say think TNT Ranch in Longmont, now under quarantine, was infected by a wild animal, because two elk born at the ranch developed CWD even though no cases have been identified in the herd's original members.

"Clearly, it's been in our area for a while," TNT owner Adam Tveten said. "Whether or not they gave it to us, we may never know."

Elk breeder Craig McConnell also maintains that wild animals caused the infection of his Elk Echo ranch in Stoneham. McConnell said he thinks he either bought an infected bull from an Allenspark rancher or had a CWD-positive wild deer near his Stoneham pens. Both locations are within the endemic area.

DOW officials have also acknowledged the truth to the industry's charge that in the early and mid-1990s, the agency was rough on ranchers.

"I think most trained wildlife professionals have a problem with any kind of captive situations," said Rick Kahn, the DOW's wildlife management supervisor.

"We wrote a lot of violations," added Bob Seidel, a retired DOW biologist who was responsible for captive elk operations in the early 1990s. "We were criticized for being heavy-handed, and it was a valid criticism."

"Nobody in the division had the experience or inclination to regulate ranches and farms," elk breeder Wolcott said. "The Agriculture Department did."

As a result, elk ranchers were shifted to that department, where they helped develop the nation's first CWD surveillance program. The DOW has criticized the program because it relies on ranchers to submit required mortality reports and fresh brain samples.

But Kahn, Seidel's former boss, said the division was concerned that ranchers were starting their herds with animals illegally captured from the wild, Kahn said.

In the intervening years, a "grudging acceptance" of raising elk for meat has developed within the agency, Kahn said. But it's still opposed to the practice of selling captive-raised bulls to fenced hunting ranches, where customers pay up to $10,000 to bring home a trophy rack.

Ranchers think the DOW is trying to maintain a monopoly on elk hunting, which provides more than 50 percent of the agency's funding.

But Kahn suggested there's a philosophical reason biologists get indigestion watching captive wildlife.

"We worry about the public becoming so used to seeing elk behind fences that protecting their habitat may become secondary," he said.

"One reason there's no great movement to put bison back on the plains is the public feels secure there are already enough around."


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