Elk ranches troubled by brain ailment

Monday, July 1, 2002

FORT SCOTT, Kan. -- To the storied Kansas landscape of roaming buffalo and playful deer and antelope, add the elk.

That is, domestic elk -- those raised behind tall fences. It's been a growing industry over the years but times have been a little rocky lately for many elk ranchers.

The struggles stem from what many say are unfounded fears about chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a contagious brain ailment that causes elk and deer to grow thin and die.

"Right now there are a lot of things going against them and CWD is the foundation for all of it," Kansas livestock commissioner George Teagarden said in Topeka.

Teagarden said there hasn't been any known cases of CWD spreading to cattle herds or infecting humans.

Henry Kriegel, North American Elk Breeders Association spokesman, said CWD first was discovered in a South Dakota domestic elk herd in 1997. He said fewer than 300 out of an estimated 130,000 domestic elk nationally have tested positive.

"It's a public perception thing," said Kriegel, of Bozeman, Mont. "Critics of elk ranching, who only believe that elk should be wild, use CWD to attack the industry."

Kansas is among five states where CWD was found in domestic elk. Last year, an elk brought in from Colorado had the disease and the entire herd of 13 near Anthony was destroyed.

"We have only found the one case. Even though we are pretty comfortable, there is concern," Teagarden said.

Shouldering blame

Ken Anderson has raised elk since 1990 and is past president of the NAEBA. He said elk ranchers aren't the bad guys, but rather have been among the leaders in fighting the disease.

"Game farming is getting the blame for CWD and that's just not the case," said Anderson, who raises about 150 elk outside Fort Scott and in Clay County in north-central Kansas.

For instance, NAEBA developed a program that includes strict record keeping of herds, mandatory examinations of all elk that die over 16 months of age, certification of herds with CWD-negative status and killing off herds with one case of CWD.

Since January, Kansas has required all domestic elk coming into the state to be from herds monitored for CWD for at least four years. About 60 elk ranchers are registered with the Kansas Animal Health Board.

"In Kansas, you can't capture wild elk or deer and call them domestic, so what they have would be coming from established herds," Teagarden said.

A few states, including Missouri, have temporarily banned or restricted the importation of elk out of fear of CWD.

"It limits where you can sell. If I wanted to sell in Missouri, I couldn't do it now," he said. "It's very much cutting into the market."

Among elk ranchers, the top commodity are the elk's antlers while they maintain their soft, velvety feel.

Anderson said the antlers grow about two months before they are cut off -- without harming the animal -- and sold.

"The primary reason for raising elk is the velvet," Anderson said. "When the velvet production decreases, then they can be used for the meat and hides."

Velvet is in high demand in Asia, where it has been used for more than 2,000 years to treat a variety of ailments such as impaired vision and rheumatism.

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