Colorado elk quarantine could spread to Utah

October 10, 2001 The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT) by Ray Grass
An emergency quarantine -- placed on an elk ranch in Colorado found to have chronic wasting disease (CWD) -- could reach into Utah and possibly affect the Hi-Ute ranch in Park City, which has been seen as a wildlife viewing area for Olympic visitors.

Two weeks ago, Colorado officials notified the Utah Department of Agriculture that CWD, a cousin affliction to mad cow disease, was found on a private elk ranch in the North Park community of Cowdrey and that a cow elk from that herd had been sold to a Utah operation in April.

The 6-year-old cow, carrying a calf at the time, was purchased by Chris Denver of Roosevelt. In August, he shipped the cow and newborn calf from his Roosevelt elk ranch to the Hi-Ute Ranch, where he is a partner. He said the cow elk is running with a "small herd" of elk on the ranch. He said the Utah Department of Agriculture has put a "hold" on the cow and calf, "and I can't sell them," but UDA has placed no other restrictions at this time.

Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources say they are concerned that UDA, which has control over domestic elk, isn't taking stronger steps.

"This is a devastating disease," said John Kimball, DWR director. "There are no elk around the Roosevelt ranch, but there are deer. I've given instructions to our officers to kill any deer, as quickly as possible, that get into the elk enclosure. We're still looking at the Hi-Ute situation. This is a disease you can control when the elk are penned, but if it gets into the wild elk, you can't."

Calls to Michael Marshall, state veterinarian with UDA, were not returned by press time.

In Colorado, agriculture officials have placed a quarantine on seven elk operations and are expected to kill up to 2,000 elk on those ranches. They are calling for a ban on the construction of elk ranches and are receiving calls -- from such people as the former director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife -- to "dismantle Colorado's elk-farming industry."

Other elk from the contaminated farm were sold in Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas and Mexico and to other ranches in Colorado.

CWD attacks both deer and elk. Biologists are not certain how the disease is spread, but they believe it is passed from animal to animal through direct contact, such as one animal eating food tainted with saliva from a contaminated animal. They do know it hits deer and elk that move into contaminated areas.

It is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy related to mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Unlike those diseases, however, which have proven fatal to humans, CWD has not shown to infect humans. The degenerative disorder attacks the brains of deer and elk, causing unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

In 1999, a Utah hunter died from symptoms similar to those of CWD and CJD, but tests were inconclusive.

A report from the UDA said it would be left up to Denver to determine if and when the cow and calf are killed and tested.

Denver said there are about 20 elk on his Roosevelt ranch and about 60 at Hi-Ute. Before being shipped to Utah, the cow elk was exposed to the disease for about four months. He said he is certain the cow "is clean -- she's not contaminated."

There are no tests available, however, for live animals. The animals must be killed and brain tissue taken and tested.

Elk from Denver's two ranches are sold to other operations or slaughtered and the meat sold to stores and restaurants.

When private elk ranching was passed by the Utah Legislature in 1997, the DWR expressed stiff opposition to the bill. One of the main concerns was the possibility of spreading disease from domestic elk into wild herds. The only thing separating the two groups is an 8-foot fence.

It is not uncommon for both deer and elk to jump the fences. This is especially true of bull elk during the mating season, which is under way. The two groups can also come in contact by what is referred to as "fence-line contact."

Kimball said he would like to see all of the elk that came in contact with the cow and calf "held in one area, in a secure place where they can't come in contact with wild deer and elk, and at the appropriate time test the cow and calf. If it is found they are clean -- fine. However, if either animal has the disease, then the entire herd should be destroyed. Until the animals are killed we'll never know for sure."

One test requires an 18-month waiting period after an animal has been exposed.

CWD has been found in 14 captive elk herds and only one wild herd that is located on the Colorado/Wyoming border near Cheyenne. It was identified in the border herd 10 years ago and has been closely monitored over the years. Officials believe it has been confined to that area. Utah has been running tests the past two hunting seasons and has found no sign of the disease.

The U.S. secretary of agriculture recently identified CWD as a "national disease emergency."

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