The federal government's decision to pay elk ranchers to go out of business to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease could be a huge hint on how disease is spread.
So far, wildlife officials haven't stated clearly how they think chronic wasting disease is being passed between elk and deer. But the leading veterinarian studying the disease told the Steamboat Pilot & Today a few weeks ago that chronic wasting disease is most likely spread through urine and fecal contamination of the soil.
That certainly makes sense. The chances are small for elk and deer contracting the disease by eating food that has come into contact with waste from an infected animal. That explains why only a small number of animals within a free-ranging herd are contracting chronic wasting disease.
Soil contamination also explains why the first deer diagnosed with chronic wasting disease, living in a small state research pen on the Front Range, quickly infected nearly all of the other deer living in the pen.
On a large scale, that is the fear some have about private elk ranches. Though the animals aren't being kept in small pens, they are confined to an area that is smaller than the animals' natural range. Under those conditions, the amount of soil contamination could be more concentrated than on the other side of the private fence, creating a hot zone for the disease.
Some citizens groups will lead you to believe this has already happened and that elk ranches are the single reason why chronic wasting disease is spreading. These are the same groups who oppose hunting. Needless to say, they don't look too kindly on elk ranches catering to high-dollar hunters looking for a guaranteed trophy kill.
It's not clear if some elk ranches have become hot zones for chronic wasting disease, but most of the places in Colorado where the disease is popping up are near an elk ranch. However, animals on the ranches in endemic areas don't always test positive. Such was the case with an outbreak near Hayden last month.
The ranches that will receive federal funding for going out of business so far are all in the first endemic area (around Fort Collins), yet no elk on the ranches have tested positive for the disease. Then why does the federal government want them out of business? If the elk ranches are not the problem, they certainly are believed to be part of the solution in controlling larger outbreaks. Though no one has said it, it appears the fear of soil contamination in these ranches is the reason.
Wildlife officials should stop telling us how little they know about chronic wasting disease and start talking about what they do know, or at least suspect. Everyone understands this is a relatively new disease and not much is known about it. But decisions apparently are being made using some base of reasoning that hasn't been shared with the public.