Captive elk decision looms

Officials look at Motherwell Ranch, say priority is to depopulate

A decision has yet to be made on what to do with a herd of 208 captive elk on a ranch south of Hayden where a bull elk tested positive for chronic wasting disease late last week, state officials said Friday.

The herd at the 1,800-acre Motherwell Ranch in Hamilton was quarantined immediately after the infected 4-year-old bull elk was found and has remained quarantined, which means no animals can enter or leave the ranch, said Jim Miller, policy director at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture, which has authority over the case, is working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to come up with a solution, Miller said.

Officials have contacted Motherwell Ranch owner Wes Adams, a Las Vegas contractor, but discussions have not yet begun, Miller said. Adams could not be reached for comment.

Depopulating the herd is the top priority for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Miller said.

"We want to make certain that an alternative livestock facility in the state of Colorado does not become a reservoir for this disease in the environment," Miller said. "We think it's important to get a handle on controlling the disease once it is found so that there's no question that Colorado elk and Colorado's alternative livestock industry is as free of chronic wasting disease as we can make it."

The elk is not the first in Northwest Colorado to be found infected with the disease, which is thought to be caused by an abnormally folded protein that eats holes in its victims' brains, eventually killing them.

In 2002, 10 wild mule deer that had been trapped inside the fences of the Motherwell Ranch were the first documented cases of chronic wasting disease on Colorado's Western Slope.

Since then, multiple wild deer and elk have been found infected with the disease throughout Northwest Colorado.

Also in 2002, infected captive elk were found at the Trophy Mountain Elk Ranch in North Park. That captive herd immediately was destroyed, an action that likely will be taken with the herd at Motherwell Ranch, Miller said.

If Adams agrees to the depopulation, he could be paid roughly $2,500 per elk as indemnification, Miller said.

If Adams will not agree to the depopulation, Miller said, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has the authority to depopulate the herd against the owner's will.

During the past year, there have been about half a dozen elk mortalities at the ranch, Miller said. Only two of those died from natural causes.

When the mule deer were found to be infected in 2002, officials did not quarantine the elk herd because there was no basis to believe the elk herd was infected, Miller said. Quarantining the animals likely would not have made a difference, he said, as the animals are not bred and sold to other ranches, but instead are hunted on the property.

Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the division is working with the Department of Agriculture.

"(The Department of Agriculture has) depopulated a number of herds throughout the state, and we supported their decisions in previous instances where depopulation did occur," Malmsbury said.

The Colorado Elk Breeder Association will stand behind the decision of the state veterinarian and the Department of Agriculture, said Ron Walker, association president.

Although Walker said he had expected the disease would turn up in elk at the ranch, he had hoped it would happen further down the road. He also said the association feels it may not be necessary to depopulate the herd because surrounding wild animals already have been infected.

"I'm not sure it's a No. 1 priority to depopulate because the risk is not inside the fence. The risk is outside the fence," Walker said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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