Domestic elk could threaten wild elk

October 18, 2001 The Santa Fe New Mexican by Robert Weller
DENVER -- The shipment of elk exposed to chronic wasting disease to 15 states could seriously harm the nation's deer and elk population if the animals spread the disease, scientists said Wednesday.

Most of the animals originated at the Elk Echo Ranch at Stoneham in north-central Colorado. Officials already have begun destroying suspect deer and elk and believe they have stopped the spread of the disease within the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is setting up a fund to pay for surveillance of the disease and to reimburse game ranchers whose animals are destroyed. The disease has been found in animals on game ranches in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, the department said. It exists in the wild only in a swath of land through north-central and northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska.

Colorado agricultural officials have traced shipments to both Dakotas, New Mexico, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

"We're holding our breath to find out how far this has gone," said Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"The work we have done here with simulation models of how the disease might behave suggests it could do substantial harm to deer populations," said Dr. Mike Miller, a veterinarian who works for the state wildlife agency. He said the spread through the deer population "could be explosive."

"I cannot even imagine what it would do to the hunting industry if this disease gets out into the deer population," said Bob Meulengracht, field director for the Mule Deer Foundation in Colorado.

Officials in Pennsylvania, whose population includes 1 million hunters, have quarantined the suspect elk at an undisclosed location.

Bryan Richards of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife said, even though only one suspect elk was imported, "we are taking this dead serious."

Complicating the control of the disease is the fact that animals must be killed to determine whether they are infected with the brain disease.

First officially recognized in 1967, the disease leaves animals listless. Ultimately, they waste away and die. Although it is not known to be transmissible to humans, Colorado health officials have said they do not want to see it spread.

State Epidemiologist John Pape said mad-cow disease was not initially recognized as a human pathogen. It comes from the same disease group, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, as chronic wasting disease.

Environmental and hunting groups have called for stricter regulation of game ranches, saying they could imperil both the hunting and tourist industries.

Elk ranchers sell breeding stock, meat, velvet antlers and, in some cases, allow fee shooting. Elk ranches in Canada and the United States are estimated to be worth $ 1 billion, including land, buildings, the value of the elk and associated revenue. Hunting and viewing of wild animals is worth more than that in Colorado alone.

Craig McConnell, owner of the Elk Echo Ranch near Stoneham, doesn't dispute that "most of the trace-backs are coming from my ranch" but maintains the disease initially was spread by elk that had been held in state wildlife pens.

McConnell, whose ranch has more than 600 head of elk, said he never would have gotten into the business in an area where the disease is endemic if wildlife officials had publicized the problem.

"Now I am history. I've got $ 4 million in elk out here. I have one bull who was going to make me $ 70,000 to $ 80,000, and he is going to be a toasted marshmallow in the bottom of a hole. They are going to pay me $ 3,000 for him," said McConnell.

Malmsbury said it was common knowledge the disease existed when McConnell bought his elk.

McConnell said the government should buy out the 20 to 25 game ranchers in the area where the disease is endemic at fair prices. McConnell said even that won't necessarily guarantee the disease doesn't spread.

"What if a hunter takes a deer back to Pennsylvania on the hood of his car?" McConnell asked.

Malmsbury said there is no known instance of the disease being transmitted in that manner, and wildlife officials are preparing to ban the movement of carcasses out of the endemic area.

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, nearly 7,000 elk exposed to the disease have been destroyed since 1996, said Dr. LeeAnn Forsyth, provincial veterinarian. Deer heads given to game officials by hunters now have revealed the disease exists in the wild population.

With the hunting season nearing its peak, game officials in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico have asked hunters to deliver the heads of deer for testing.

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