Plan for Motherwell Ranch elk expected

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About one year after a bull elk at the Motherwell Ranch tested positive for chronic wasting disease, officials say they hope to have a finalized herd plan for the remaining ranch's captive elk by mid-January.

The plan would outline how many -- if any -- of the ranch's more than 200 elk need to be killed.

The plan could mark a shift in Colorado Department of Agriculture policy. In the past, when CWD has been found on a ranch, the entire herd was quickly depopulated. In this situation, officials have said they plan to cull a number of high-risk elk and then decide whether more need to be killed.

The Motherwell Ranch has been under quarantine since CWD was found in a 4-year-old bull elk in January, said Linh Truong, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

As part of that quarantine, no live animals can leave the facility. Dead animals can be taken out, however, so hunting at the ranch is still allowed.

Animals can be brought onto the ranch, but owner Wes Adams, a Las Vegas contractor, has not requested that any new animals come on, Truong said. Adams also is allowed to breed his animals.

Truong said that having a ranch under quarantine for almost a year is "not a common situation."

In this case, the decision for how to manage the herd has gone through a long process, involving the development of a herd plan that was then reviewed by an external panel made of veterinarians from the USDA, Colorado State University and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is reviewing the herd plan now, and Truong said that agency's comments are expected at any time. Once those comments are received, it should take about two to three weeks to finalize the draft plan, she said. The final plan will be available to the public.

"We want to make sure that this is going to be a plan that most people are going to be happy with and it's going to be the best situation for the years to come with that facility," she said.

The Motherwell Ranch has been adhering to some of the recommendations in the draft plan already, Truong said. Department of Agriculture officials "feel confident that he's cooperating and willing to follow the plan with all the expert consensus."

The 1,800-acre Motherwell Ranch is in Hamilton, just south of Craig.

Multiple wild elk and deer have been found with CWD across the state, and infected captive elk also have been found at other ranches. The disease is thought to be caused by an abnormally folded protein that eats holes in its victims' brains, eventually killing them.

Truong said that what made the Motherwell Ranch situation so unique is that the owner really wanted to preserve the genetics that he has developed in his herd, and also because the ranch is the largest facility in which CWD has been found so far in Colorado.

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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