Ranches earn CWD-free status

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— Many Colorado elk ranches have been monitoring their herds for Chronic Wasting Disease for eight straight years this month, according to the Colorado Elk Breeders Association.

That number holds for many elk ranches in Northwestern Colorado, a success that is important to point out with news that wild animals and some domestic elk have been found with chronic wasting disease in the area over the past two years, said Tom Cox.

Cox is a ranch manager for M&M Ranch just north of Steamboat Springs who was recently appointed as the president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association.

The eight-year anniversary of testing for CWD comes as state officials have released a preliminary decision to kill only a percentage of elk at the Motherwell Ranch southwest of Hayden, where a bull elk tested positive for the disease early this year.

Once a ranch has monitored its herd for a certain number of years and has not found the disease, it gets the status of being free of chronic wasting disease. M&M Ranch has 6-year CWD-free status, Cox said.

To hold that status, every animal that dies must be tested for the disease, as only dead animals can be tested for the fatal brain disease.

Each test can cost between $30 and $50, as well as time getting a sample to a testing agency. On ranches that are thousands of acres, finding animals in time to test them can be difficult.

Despite the costs, for many ranches, having CWD-free status is crucial to good business.

"Our business depends on selling animals to other elk ranchers," Cox said. Sending a ranch an infected animal means both would be finished, he said.

Anne Draper, who owns Bear Mountain Ranch just outside of Routt County with her husband, agreed that testing is expensive but important. Bear Mountain Ranch has 5-year CWD-free status.

"It's very important, (for) our own piece of mind and for the public perception, to know that we've got clean animals," Draper said.

In 1996, elk ranchers started voluntarily monitoring their herds based on guidelines from the Colorado State veterinarian. Since 1998, monitoring has been mandatory.

Cox ranched cattle for 40 years, moved to this area about eight years ago, and found that elk ranching was what was "really going to keep me going."

He had never been in the elk ranching business before, but when he started, "I said, 'Yep, this is me, this is what I want to do.'"

Cox, like many others, works with elk because he loves the animals. But with the specter of chronic wasting disease, many are finding it difficult to make a living.

Before 2001, 162 licensed ranches were raising 16,000 elk, according to statistics from the Colorado Elk Breeders Association. Today, those numbers have decreased to 99 ranches raising 7,000 animals.


-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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