Elk ranchers in limbo over CWD Costs mount as promised aid delayed

January 14, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Four months after Colorado officials slapped a quarantine on Rich Forrest's herd of 350 elk because one tested positive for chronic-wasting disease, the Del Norte rancher is caught in a bureaucratic netherworld.

No one can tell him when his herd will be slaughtered and tested for the fatal brain-wasting malady because a promised $ 12 million in emergency USDA funds are stuck in Washington, D.C.

He can't sell his animals for meat. The reimbursement he'll eventually receive is capped. And the feed bill since September recently topped $ 70,000. 'I feel like a political football,' said Forrest, whose Rancho Anta Grande has been under quarantine for more than three months.

'Does the government think that these critters eat air?'

In northeast Colorado, Craig McConnell has spent $ 85,000 caring for the 700 elk on four ranches he runs.

Other ranchers in Longmont and Cowdrey, Fort Morgan and Ault are in the same predicament.

Colorado agriculture officials share the ranchers' frustration.

When the USDA declared an animal health emergency and released $ 2.6 million in funds on Sept. 28 to help investigate the outbreak, it came with the understanding more money would be available to depopulate herds and clean up infected ranches.

In November, USDA officials told state veterinarian Dr. Wayne Cunningham the funds would be released as soon as an interim CWD rule was published in the Federal Register.

In December, Sen. Wayne Allard wrote Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman hoping to expedite the release of the funds.

Cunningham said last week the release may still be weeks away.

A spokeswoman for the USDA declined to answer questions about the delay, saying the agency doesn't discuss proposed legislation.

Meanwhile, every day Forrest's herd sits in the San Luis Valley is one more day a sick elk might be shedding the infectious agent that causes the long-incubating disease. The prospect agitates state wildlife officials, who fear CWD may infect local deer and elk herds, which are far outside the endemic area in northeast Colorado.

The same worries confront Nebraska state vet Dr. Larry Williams, who is nervously watching a shooting ranch near the Wyoming border where five elk in one pasture and 12 white-tailed deer in another have tested positive for the disease after being shot by hunters this fall.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission declared the festering CWD outbreak a 'code red' wildlife emergency.

'The elk on this facility are hunted, so the only way they leave is dead,' said Williams. But he fears the longer the whitetails remain inside the fence, the greater the risk they can pass the neurological disease to their brethren outside. 'The important thing now is to get these herds depopulated,' said Williams. 'The owner is willing to do that. Our director sent a letter to (Agriculture Secretary Veneman) requesting those funds be expedited.

'We feel like the government made a commitment.'

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