Wildlife vs. agriculture: Elk ranching reignites duel

June 1, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
Chronic wasting disease's gallop last year through Colorado elk farms re-ignited old feuds between the state's Division of Wildlife and its Department of Agriculture.

Since the 1960s, when state lawmakers first OK'd keeping elk behind fences, staffers in Colorado's wildlife agency hated the idea. Even so, they still had the authority to regulate the operations. Then came 1994, when elk ranchers, weary of what they said was the heavy hand of the Division of Wildlife, persuaded lawmakers to give oversight to the Department of Agriculture, an agency more at ease with the notion of wildlife as livestock.

"It was a screaming, yelling job," recalled Perry Olson, former Division of Wildlife director, describing the legislative wrestling match.

Don Ament, Colorado's agriculture commissioner, and a state senator at the time of the debate, said the regulatory switch just made sense. The Department of Agriculture was accustomed to the rigors of tracking, tattooing and inspecting captive animals.

"This was an agricultural endeavor," Ament said, looking back on the issue. "It's what we're suited for."

The bill passed easily. Among the notable yes votes were Division of Wildlife Director Russell George and Gov. Bill Owens, both of whom were legislators at the time.

All the animosity appeared to return in 2001, when CWD turned up on captive elk ranches outside northeastern Colorado's endemic area.

Division of Wildlife officers had to shoot dozens of free-roaming deer and elk outside fenced herds in case any wild animals had picked up the disease from the now-contaminated captive facilities.

To compound biologists' frustrations, it took state agricultural officials months to wrangle the USDA money needed to kill off the stock at infected ranches - a hurdle tied to complexities in federal appropriations policies, not a lack of effort by state agriculture. Still, it fueled building frustration.

"Every day those (exposed) animals sit there, we're increasing the possibility (CWD) could establish itself in the wild," Colorado Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller said at the time.

Then there were scraps over erecting double fencing around elk ranches - which would diminish the chances of wild animals coming into contact with captive ones.

But who gets the bill? Should the public subsidize the cost to protect its wildlife from infected ranches? Or should ranchers bear the cost of protecting their herds, since it's their profits at stake?

"It comes down to who will pay," said Colorado state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham, "and that is generally the basis for stopping the discussion."

Tension peaked in December, when a communications slip-up left the Division of Wildlife out of the loop on a decision by the Department of Agriculture to allow a hunting ranch in Cowdrey to bring in 164 Montana elk.

Emergency rules adopted last fall, amid CWD's rampant spread, demanded discussion between agencies before approval of any new elk shipments. In the Cowdrey case, DOW didn't find out until more than a week after the new elk arrived.

Agriculture officials said the error was due largely to state veterinarian Cunningham being on vacation, as he was the one who typically deals with wildlife officials onsuch matters.

Tom Schilling, the spokesman for Colorado's elk breeders, said tension between the agencies has ignited a political brawl, with animals' health issues taking a back seat.

Said Schilling: "There's some old scores being settled."

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