Electronic elk tracking may help increase antler trade
BOISE, Idaho – Elk breeders, who watched high profits from the velvet antler trade crash amid concerns about illness in the herds, are cautiously optimistic that a new federal plan to electronically tag the animals will reverse their fortunes.The program would use electronic tags and microchips to track and isolate elk and domestic livestock that may have been exposed to chronic wasting disease, a contagious and incurable illness which attacks the nervous system of deer and elk. It’s the latest attempt to revive the Asian market for velvet antlers, which are used as an aphrodisiac and anti-inflammatory in traditional Asian medicine.”I can show through records with the state that my herd is clean, but that doesn’t seem to influence foreign markets at all,” said Carl Melina, an emergency-room physician and owner of LoneHawk Farm in Moscow, Idaho. “It’s more of a political fear factor. Smoking cigarettes is more dangerous, but everybody gets worked up over meat. The entire Korean antler market is shut down.”When Melina first started raising elk in 1993, prices were as high as $100 a pound for velvet antlers. Prices dropped dramatically after an outbreak of chronic wasting disease was discovered in some states in the late 1990s, prompting chief importer South Korea to close its borders to American antlers. Today, antler prices run as low as $15 a pound.In an effort to control the spread of chronic wasting disease, many states already require elk ranchers to permanently and individually identify each one of their animals by using ear tags or tattoos.An initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require use of electronic radio-frequency tags or microchips.Idaho officials have offered to cover the cost of the tags for ranchers who volunteer to take part in the pilot program, but so far only about 800 of the state’s estimated 6,000 domestic elk have been tagged, said Linda Cope, an analyst with the state Agriculture Department. An additional 500 may be tagged in the coming weeks, she added.”As people understand more about animal health they’re more accepting of this. But it’s a timing thing. This is such a new concept to them,” Cope said.Melina thinks the move to electronic tracking is a positive change, but for his ranch it’s too little, too late. He’s already decided he cannot make enough money raising elk and has been slaughtering his animals.”I got into the business when elk velvet was taking off, and what that did for me was enable me to buy high and sell low. Prices went through the roof as I bought my herd,” Melina said. “But just a few days ago I sold a cow for $1,500 that I’d bought for $7,500. And that was a premium price right now – more than I’d gotten if I’d slaughtered the animal.”Gary Queen, president of the Idaho Elk Breeders Association, is skeptical of the new plan.”In the long run it may help. But most other countries that have closed their border to elk velvet antler have made statements that there would have to be 10 years of proving that the whole country was disease free. That’s not going to happen in our lifetime because disease happens on a random basis,” Queen said.Chronic wasting disease was first found in Colorado in 1967. Since then, it also has shown up Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, New York, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Saskatchewan, Canada. It can infect wild and domesticated elk and deer, but scientists have found no evidence that the disease can be transferred to other species.Glen Zebarth, a veterinarian in Alexandria, Minn., who serves on the USDA deer and elk identification working group, said there may be faster ways to improve antler sales to foreign markets. Foremost, he said, would be finding a way to test live animals for chronic wasting disease. The current test can only be done on carcasses.”The Koreans have expressed that that would be a big step in their minds.” Zebarth said.Fellow USDA working group member Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, said his home state of Texas is so optimistic about electronic tracking that it hopes to have all elk breeders participating by the end of this year.”We’re just hoping that that would free up international trade again. That would be tremendous for us. Nationally, the target date we were shooting for is around 2010,” Seale said. “The media hype of the chronic wasting disease has really driven the elk market down. It has suffered greatly over the last 3 or 4 years. But once we get tracking, the … issue will lighten.”
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