State officials are using a new strategy to deal with chronic wasting disease at an elk ranch southwest of Hayden where a bull elk tested positive for the disease early this year.
Instead of quickly depopulating the entire herd, the Colorado Department of Agriculture will cull a number of high-risk elk and then decide whether more of the herd needs to be killed, said department policy director Jim Miller.
That marks a shift for the department, Miller said. In most cases where the disease was found in a domestic animal, the entire herd was depopulated quickly. Ranch owners often volunteered to kill the entire herd, he said.
"We've never really confronted a situation quite this peculiar," Miller said. The department had not "given thought" to all of the alternatives until this case, he said.
What makes the Motherwell Ranch's situation unusual is that owner Wes Adams considers the ranch an important investment that also provides jobs for area residents, and that the ranch is in Northwest Colorado, farther from areas with a high prevalence of the disease, Miller said.
"It's a new strategy in light of the fact that we're unfortunately seeing CWD in places where it hasn't been before, and it just makes sense for us to look for new ways to accommodate elk production in Colorado," Miller said.
An official herd plan will be released soon. The Motherwell Ranch has been cooperative through the process, Miller said, taking steps such as building a second fence around the 4,000-acre ranch for an added measure of security preventing animals from entering or leaving the property.
Adams, who is a Las Vegas contractor, could not be reached for comment.
Motherwell Ranch was also the site of the first finding of chronic wasting disease on the Western Slope, when several wild deer inside the ranch's fences tested positive in 2002.
Since then, other infected wild deer and elk have been found throughout Northwest Colorado. Chronic wasting disease is thought to be caused by an abnormally folded protein that eats holes in its victims' brains, eventually killing them.
Tom Cox, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association and a local rancher, said he thought the proposed strategy was much better than depopulation.
"I'm very happy that they're not just saying, 'OK, we're going to go in there and depopulate the whole herd,'" Cox said. "That's a good thing."
But, he said, he would remain skeptical until he learned how many elk officials ultimately kill.
Cox said he does not agree with depopulating the Motherwell herd, in part because its animals are hunted rather than sold to other ranches, so all of the bull elk eventually will be killed anyway.
One reason officials have not demanded that the herd be depopulated, Cox speculated, was that Adams was fighting for his herd and his investment.
Depopulation is not completely off the table, however. If enough culled elk inside the Motherwell Ranch prove to be carrying the disease, depopulating the entire herd still would be an option, Miller said.
Still, the new strategy could represent a change in relations between government officials and elk ranchers.
Some elk ranchers, including Cox, blame the Colorado Division of Wildlife for spreading the disease to the Western Slope and then shifting the blame for that onto ranches.
The disease was spread through the DOW's movement of infected animals between research facilities on the Front Range and the Western Slope, Cox and others say, to which the DOW replies that there are uncertainties of how the disease has spread.
Cooperation between officials could be a step away from the "finger pointing" that Miller said has been common.
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