Imported elk irk wildlife officials CWD worries spur push for new rules

January 7, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Colorado agriculture officials' decision to let a North Park rancher restock his quarantined hunting operation with Montana elk has made the Division of Wildlife more determined than ever to pass tough new regulations on the industry.

Under emergency rules adopted in October, agriculture officials promised to 'consult and inform' their wildlife colleagues about all elk imports.

But on Dec. 17, 50 Montana bulls and 70 cows were off-loaded at a holding pen down the road from the Trophy Mountain Elk Ranch without the DOW's knowledge.

This infuriated local wildlife managers, who this fall had to kill 180 mule deer on state school board land leased by the ranch, to eliminate the risk that chronic-wasting disease would spread to wild game. 'We were not aware this (elk) importation had been approved until after Christmas,' said DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury. 'The division expects to be consulted on the importation of captive elk into the state.'

This Friday, the Colorado Wildlife Commission will decide whether the DOW should try to reclaim its authority to regulate elk imports from the Agriculture Department's state veterinarian and Brand Inspection Board, which has performed the function since 1990.

The commission will also take up regulations that would ban any elk from entering Colorado or moving across the state unless the animals come from a herd that has been certified CWD-free for at least five years.

It will be more than a year before a single elk herd in the country meets that requirement.

The two sides had staked out their positions on surveillance requirements this fall during the frantic investigation into a CWD outbreak that left nine ranches under quarantine and 1,500 elk awaiting slaughter.

But the arrival of the replacement herd in the North Park community of Cowdrey in December has lit a new fire under the wildlife agency.

Hunters pay up to $ 8,900 to shoot trophy bulls on the school board section leased by the Trophy Mountain ranch. The square mile of land, surrounded by an eight-foot fence, generates less than $ 1,000 a year in rent for school trust and blocks a major deer migration route.

Dr. Wayne Cunningham, the state veterinarian, signed the import permit after determining the Montana herd was certified as CWD-free for the last three years as required by emergency regulations, said brand inspector Gary Shoun.

The elk are being held at a neighboring ranch until USDA funds are available to slaughter the Trophy Mountain herd, which was exposed to three CWD-positive trophy 'shooter' bulls bought in the spring of 2000.

Shoun said Cunningham agreed to let Mark Mitchell, who owns Trophy Mountain, repopulate his ranch because none of the CWD-positive bulls had shown symptoms of the disease.

All three came from Elk Echo, a Stoneham ranch that has produced 14 CWD-positive elk in the last three years. But since the bulls sold to Trophy Mountain weren't slobbering, wobbling or acting strangely, it's unlikely they were contagious, Shoun said.

CWD researchers point out that 30 years after they first identified the disease at a Fort Collins wildlife research pen, they still don't know exactly what causes the neurological malady, or precisely how it's transmitted from one animal to another.

For veteran biologists within the wildlife agency, the Cowdrey episode is further proof that agriculture officials' toppriority is doing whatever ranchers say they need to stay in business. Assuming the infected bulls weren't contagious puts the North Park deer herd, and the hunting-dependent economy of Walden, at further risk, they believe.

Elk ranchers say the wildlife agency's tough proposals show it's just as determined as ever to drive them out of business, which is the reason they got the Colorado legislature to move them out from under the DOW's authority in 1994.

In an emergency meeting Friday, the Agriculture Commission adopted its own elk import regulations, which step up the 36-month surveillance requirement to 60 months between now and 2004.

It's a fair compromise, they say, that would allow some elk breeders to continue to do business as the rules tighten.

Wildlife officials argue that without an immediate 60-month regulation, infected elk that haven't developed symptoms could again slip through, igniting another outbreak in ranched or wild game.

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