A chronic waste

January 12, 2002 The Economist
AT THE Big Velvet Elk Ranch near Darby, Montana, you are confronted by a cryptic sign: "Do not ask about free elk. We have 762 names on our list. Celebrate dishonesty in Montana." The ranch's owner, Len Wallace, invited people to come and kill his 800-strong herd of domestic elk for free--partly in disgust at a law forbidding him from charging hunters to do so. Things are perhaps even stranger in Colorado, which now has a small population of neon-orange elk. They have been spray-painted because they may have chronic wasting disease (CWD), an elkish cousin of mad-cow disease.

Elk ranching is a slightly odd industry. A small market exists for their meat, but elk have two more profitable uses. The first is as prey: hunters looking for a quick trophy pay to kill "shooter bulls" in fenced-off ranches. And the "velvet" side of the business sells off young antlers "harvested" when they are still soft and full of blood. The tissue is prized in Asia, both as a general tonic and as an aphrodisiac. Now both branches of elk ranching are under attack--the shooting side for being unsporting and cruel to the elk, the velvet side for supposedly posing a health risk to the consumers. And the ranchers, whose enclosed herd comprises some 110,000 elk in North America, are angry.

Fenced trophy hunts are already outlawed in several states. In November 2000 Montana, hitherto a stronghold of the industry, joined them, when voters approved a ballot initiative. Few locals had expected the initiative to succeed, but it got strong support not just from wildlife activists but also from many hunters, who prefer their targets not to be fenced in.

The ranchers tried to find a way round the ban by selling live elk to hunters, who then came round to shoot "their" trophies. Last autumn a state judge said this thwarted the clear intent of the law. The ranchers are furious. Mr Wallace had wanted to give his elk to the Crow Indian tribe, to let them run free on their tribal lands, but he was turned down because of fears about CWD. Saying he could no longer afford to feed the elk, he then advertised his free-for-all, and was duly swamped with offers: hence that sign.

Colorado, where hunting and fishing contribute an estimated $1.7 billion to the economy, still allows trophy hunting on fenced ranches. Its problem is CWD, a member of the family of brain diseases that includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. It was first discovered in mule deer kept at a Colorado state research facility near Fort Collins in 1967, and is known to affect a small percentage of wild elk and deer in Colorado, Wyoming and a corner of Nebraska. The most recent (and serious) outbreak has been traced to a single ranch, the Elk Echo Ranch, near Stoneham. Before the infection was discovered, the ranch had shipped more than 400 exposed elk to ranches and trophy-shooting operations around the country.

CWD was declared a national emergency by the Agriculture Department in September. This made it possible to distribute $2.6m in compensation to ranchers whose herds now have to be "depopulated". Fear that CWD could be transmitted to humans has not helped the domestic market for elk meat, and the South Koreans, the main customers for antlers, have embargoed North American velvet.

A moratorium on the movement of all captive elk has just been lifted in Colorado, but the damage is still being felt. Some 1,500 domestic elk that have been exposed to CWD are being destroyed. Elk ranches in 16 states have been quarantined, and unusual precautions, including the neon-orange paint, have been taken to stop exposed animals escaping to the wild.

The ranchers, a suspicious lot, claim that government scientists are to blame for the latest outbreak. The scientists reply that, without ranching, the disease would not have spread so far. Predators and harsh winters, they argue, would probably have curbed the disease's progress in the wild, but domestic elk are protected from such hazards.

In fact, nobody seems to know exactly how the disease is transmitted, and there is no sure way to test live animals for infection. The only way to keep it in check seems to be mass-slaughter. In Colorado, officials are apparently studying an outbreak in Saskatchewan, in Canada. There, about 6,500 domestic elk have been slaughtered, and some C$40m-worth ($25m-worth) of compensation has been given to ranchers.

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