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Elk farms have led to the slaughter of wild herds

Hal Herring, Writers on the Range

The gruesome attempt to control Chronic Wasting Disease in the wild has begun. In the foothills west of Boulder, rifle shots echo through the canyons. “We are trying to kill as many as we can before the main migration starts,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury.

On the other side of the Rockies, in Routt County, the Motherwell Elk Ranch lies at the center of another killing zone. As domestic elk were imported into the Motherwell to provide “hunting experiences” for wealthy clients, chronic wasting disease (CWD) was apparently imported with them. The disease has appeared in six of the several hundred wild mule deer killed by wildlife officials outside the fences of the shooting preserve. It is the first known occurence of CWD in the vast treasure house of wild big game herds on the West slope of the Rockies.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has asked the state for money to kill as many as 15,000 wild deer and elk over the next four years. Colorado wildlife officials, chief among them Mike Miller, who has been working with CWD since its discovery in 1967, find themselves in the extraordinary position of trying to decimate game herds that they have dedicated their lives to preserving.

They are not alone. Half a continent away in southern Wisconsin, wildlife managers are swallowing an equally bitter pill. This May they are trying to eradicate their renowned whitetail herd in an attempt to stop a CWD outbreak. An estimated 15,000 deer will be slaughtered. Wisconsin has more than 140 whitetail deer farms, producing “shooter bucks” for the penned trophy-shooting trade. The trade in whitetails and elk to and from Wisconsin has been frenetic in recent years, and it is believed CWD was introduced with shipments of animals from the west. This is the first appearance of the disease east of the Mississippi River.

What a long road it has been to this cold and barren place where we find ourselves now. In 1998, Montana elk rancher Bob Spoklie told a writer for Audubon, “People who worry about stuff like that never had s_-t on their boots or signed a paycheck across the back.”

In 1999, Paonia, elk rancher Steve Wolcott said, “We will bear some pain and expense to get rid of this disease, but we’re not going to put ourselves out of business.” And indeed they did not, even after the Elk Echo Ranch, one of 20 elk ranches located within the part of northeast Colorado where CWD has been known in the wild for three decades, shipped 400 CWD exposed elk to ranches in 15 states, triggering the USDA to issue a state of emergency regarding the disease.

Colorado elk ranchers, like elk ranchers in many other states, pulled off a fantastic hat trick when they lobbied successfully to have the Department of Agriculture take sole responsibility for their regulation. Mike Miller said he repeatedly asked agriculture officials not to license elk ranches within the area where CWD is found in the wild, a contiguous area of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Now, dissent is rising. As Dr. Bruce Chesebro, a leading researcher at the

National Institute of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories, said recently, “People ask how this disease is spreading, and I say: “by truck.’ “It is being moved around in these game farms,” Chesebro continued, “and it is leaking out into the wildlife. Until you close down the game farms, you can kill all the wildlife you want, and you will not halt the spread of this disease.”

Taxpayer dollars are flowing to elk “producers,” as the ranchers call themselves, though there are only two viable products that have ever come from this industry – elk-velvet antler, marketed as a miracle supplement and aphrodisiac, and “domestic trophies” for penned shooting.

The original $2.6 million allocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to indemnify elk ranchers whose herds were destroyed in the December 2000 outbreak has been supplemented by an additional $15 million to buy out and destroy the 20 Colorado elk ranches within the CWD endemic area. These are the elk farms Mike Miller asked the Department of Agriculture not to permit.

So far, neither the Colorado Legislature nor the governor’s office has said anything about bringing an end to this sordid chapter in bad business experimentation, where men decided to domesticate and market a potent symbol of Colorado’s wild country, not caring at all that they were bringing about the destruction of the real thing.

Hal Herring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High

Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes in

Corvallis, Mont.


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