Elk breeders hope for best amid bad news

October 12, 2001 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Lou Kilzer
Giving away elk burgers during a chronic wasting disease scare might sound ambitious, but Colorado elk breeders are going to give it a twirl.

Visitors to Elkfest 2001 in Estes Park this weekend will be greeted with 1,400 free barbecue patties of farm elk, courtesy of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association.

"It is USDA approved," said Jan Forrest of the Anta Grande elk ranch near Del Norte. "And it's CWD negative." The meat will come from farm elk, some possibly from herds in which CWD has been detected, said Ron Walker, president of the breeders association. However, none is from an infected animal, he added.

"It's healthier than what you get when you hunt in the wild," Walker said. He said he expects long lines of people wanting to get a taste of "the healthiest food you can have."

Colorado's elk-farm industry is currently in a crisis generated when CWD was detected in seven captive elk. The state plans to kill and incinerate 1,600 captive elk to try to wipe out the disease and save the industry.

The problem is simple: CWD is in a class of deadly diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Its relative in cattle, called BSE or mad cow disease, is transmissible to humans. The discovery of BSE in Great Britain has crippled that country's cattle industry. BSE, though, has not been detected in the United States.

So far, CWD is different from BSE. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say there have been no known cases of elk or deer transmitting CWD to humans.

Still, many would prefer not taking any chances, which is what is hurting the elk farms.

The disease was first detected in a Division of Wildlife closed research facility in Fort Collins in 1967. It has slowly spread to wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and parts of Nebraska.

Elk from infected Colorado ranches, however, have been sold to other ranches in at least 15 states. Those animals are being tracked down and many are quarantined.

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