Elk kill begins at ill-fated ranch

February 8, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
DEL NORTE - State and federal officials today begin the grim task of killing the first of 330 elk exposed to chronic wasting disease at a picturesque ranch next to the Rio Grande.

'This whole piece of land is centered around this animal, and now I'm losing the centerpiece,' said Rich Forrest, the frustrated owner of Rancho Anta Grande.

'But since there's no way of telling which ones are infected, they all have to be killed so we can control this disease.'

After cleaning up Rancho Anta Grande, the veterinary team will euthanize 1,200 more elk in northern Colorado over the next two months. 'I guess I'm kind of the spear point of a cleanup we all agree has to happen,' Forrest said.

Over the next week, veterinarians will euthanize each animal by administering first a tranquilizer and then a fatal dose of barbiturates. After the heads are removed for later study, the carcasses will be turned to ash in a 36-foot-deep pit by a 2,500-degree blast of heat from a special incinerator.

The soil in the pen where a CWD-positive elk was found at the ranch this summer also will be sterilized in the pit.

'It's not a happy moment to come down here to watch these elegant animals get killed,' said Henry Kriegel, spokesman for the North American Elk Breeders Association. 'You can see how people get so attached to them. They're so beautiful.'

State veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said the operation at Forrest's ranch was 'by far' the largest 'depopulation' he's had to undertake.

'Our training is to save animals, not to put them down, so this is not easy for anybody,' Cunningham said.

Forrest's ranch, which sits between the snow-capped peaks of the Rio Grande National Forest and the La Garita Mountains, has been under quarantine since Sept. 18, when a cow elk that died tested positive for CWD. But the cleanup has been delayed until this month, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally released $ 12.5 million in national assistance to help reimburse ranchers in Colorado and other states for their CWD losses.

In the meantime, Forrest has spent $ 70,000 to maintain his elk herd.

The refrigerated heads of Forrest's elk may eventually provide researchers with clues to help them crack the secrets of the brain-wasting disease they believe is caused by a mysterious, mutant protein called a prion.

But Forrest, a geologist and former research scientist, says CWD experts are wrong to focus on the elusive prion. He says there's a much more ordinary cause for the disease that makes deer and elk slobber, wobble and lose weight until they waste away - maybe a bacteria or a virus.

So he and his wife, Jan Elsworth, have created The CWD Foundation to encourage research into the malady, which is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy like sheep scrapie and mad-cow disease.

Unlike mad-cow disease, there's no evidence yet that CWD can infect humans.

As seed money, the Forrests intend to use whatever is left over from about $ 500,000 in assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the loss of his animals. But after paying back investors and paying off debts, he said there won't be much left.

And he's still waiting to hear whether the USDA will let him restock the parts of his ranch where the sick cow elk was never held.

'It's kind of an idyllic place,' Forrest said of his ranch, one of only two remaining large blocks of land in a stretch of valley already dotted with subdivisions.

'But if I can't make the mortgage anymore, I'll have to find something to do with the land.'

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