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Wasting away

Disease breaking down elk, ranchers

Visionaries. It’s how Steamboat Springs elk rancher Judith Harrington describes herself and fellow alternative livestock ranchers.

“We have the livestock of the future,” she said from her sprawling ranch a few miles southwest of Clark.

Harrington points to the minimal grazing land required to raise elk, their lean meat, majestic antlers and lucrative velvet, which is popular in herbal and holistic medicines. And there’s thousands of dollars to be made from the sale of a single pregnant cow or straw of semen from an award-winning bull.



“This is a legitimate business,” Harrington said. “It isn’t a hobby.”

But Colorado elk ranching is dying, a victim of chronic wasting disease. Once a $35 million a year industry, the state of elk ranching is as sick and wobbly as the cervids that succumb to the brain-eating malady.



Numbering more than 150 just a few years ago, elk ranches are disappearing at an alarming pace. Now fewer than 70 operate across the state, said Tom Cox, Steamboat elk rancher and Colorado Elk Breeding Association board member.

Restrictions on captive elk movement in and out of the state have all but stopped once lucrative sales, and international fear of the still mysterious chronic wasting disease have brought the velvet and antler market to its knees.

Harrington and others, including state Department of Agriculture spokesman Jim Miller, said Colorado elk ranches are free of chronic wasting disease and have been for nearly two years. They said the industry has been a leader in self-regulation and scrutiny, requiring chronic wasting disease and tuberculosis testing for many years.

Some elk ranchers, Harrington and Cox included, blame the Division of Wildlife for not only spreading the devastating disease to the Western Slope but also for shifting that blame onto the ranches.

“The Division of Wildlife is at fault for what I’m experiencing,” Harrington said. Specifically, Harrington said the DOW transported infected animals back and forth between its research facilities in Fort Collins and on the Western Slope, spreading the disease to wild herds of deer and elk. Infected free-ranging deer and elk have been responsible for contaminating captive herds, such as the case of the Motherwell Elk Ranch southwest of Hayden, where several wild deer that found their way into the captive elk herd tested positive, Harrington said. Those positive tests were the first time chronic wasting disease had been found on the Western Slope.

The DOW counters that Motherwell’s captive elk haven’t been tested, and thus the origin of chronic wasting disease there remains unknown. The agency doesn’t deny its researchers transported animals back and forth during experiments throughout the 1980s and 1990s — a summary of animal movements is posted on its Web site. But the DOW said it was not clear that chronic wasting disease was spread as a result of those movements.

“We’re not saying how it got (to the Western Slope),” DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. “We’re not sure. There’s a lot of uncertainties with (chronic wasting disease). The one thing we do know is we want to stop it.”

Elk ranchers also complain about regulations that mandate that entire captive herds be quarantined if a single animal tests positive for the disease, while only fractions of wild herds are eliminated when the disease is discovered there. There is no way to test a live animal for the disease.

The DOW said it is simply following agreed-upon policy to effectively manage and contain a disease scientists know little about.

“In no way are we targeting specific ranchers or industries,” Malmsbury said. “These are some of the things we have to consider because of the enormity of the agriculture and wild animal industries in this state. It’s our job to protect them.”

The back and forth between ranchers, the DOW and the Department of Agriculture, which for the most part is responsible for regulating the elk ranching industry, is a game of finger-pointing and speculation many would like to see end.

“There’s no shortage of mistrust and downright dislike between some of the agencies and elk ranchers,” Miller said. “There’s a history there. But the fact is we have to look forward.”

“In the case of elk ranching, we are not trying to put it out of business,” Malmsbury said. “We have not said elk ranching has spread the disease to other parts of the state.”

What the DOW has said, Malmsbury said, is that diseased captive animals have been moved across the state by elk ranchers.

The crippling of the industry has forced some ranchers, such as Harrington and Cox, to either stop or severely limit breeding practices. They have been forced to sell elk at meat-market prices to slaughterhouses and trophy hunting ranches to pay for their operations.

“I have to,” Harrington said of her decision to allow people onto her ranch to cull bulls. “I have no income. I had an income up until two years ago.”

“We’ve really been stymied by chronic wasting disease in the wild,” Cox said. “Hunting and slaughtering facilities are (our only options). There’s no one out there buying animals for breeding stock.”

A sale Harrington had all but completed earlier this year of about 70 bulls to a New Mexico elk rancher was rejected by that state’s Department of Game and Fish over chronic wasting concerns, she said. Harrington maintains her herd of 180 has been chronic wasting disease-free for more than five years, but a perception of disease-ridden Colorado elk ranches has influenced the way neighboring states deal with the problem.

Elk ranchers hope the development of a live test for chronic wasting disease could supply the boost elk ranching needs. Though development of several live tests is under way, it probably will be several years before a live test is reliable and available, state veterinarian Dr. Wayne Cunningham said.

Until something happens to turn the industry around, elk ranchers will continue to fight for their livelihoods, Cox said.

But there’s also concern that by the time something does happen, most of the state’s elk ranches already will be gone.

— To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com


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