Game farms not responsible for wasting disease, rancher says |

Game farms not responsible for wasting disease, rancher says

Carrie Click

Following discovery of a case of chronic wasting disease near Collbran, one local elk rancher says he thinks wildlife officials and the media are overreacting to the disease.

Terry Porter, who with his wife, veterinarian Liz Chandler, owns and operates a game farm on Alkali Creek southwest of New Castle, says that it’s important to put the disease in perspective.

“I don’t think it’s near as big a deal as the division is making it out to be,” said Porter. “This could ruin the industry.”

There’s actually two industries involved: the deer and elk hunting industry, which brings sizable income – and numerous hunters – to Colorado during hunting season; and game farms, like Porter’s 200-head elk farm.

Division of Wildlife officials confirmed this week that a mule deer killed near Collbran on Sept. 20 tested positive for the disease. The diseased mule deer was killed by a hunter using a muzzleloader about nine miles northeast of Collbran on the south side of Battlement Mesa mountain.

News of the Collbran deer’s positive test comes on the eve of the opening of the deer and elk rifle season Oct. 12. Porter fears that blowing the disease out of proportion could have negative effects on both hunters and consumers.

Porter also has concerns about the game farm industry being blamed for an outbreak that he believes isn’t an outbreak at all. Although farmed elk and deer have been detected with the disease, there is no evidence of farmed animals being more prone to contracting – or passing on – the disease, he said.

“There’s a perception in the Division of Wildlife that the game farm industry is contributing to the occurrence of chronic wasting disease,” he said.

Actually, Porter thinks harvesting elk in a controlled environment works to his advantage.

“All of our elk are automatically tested for a host of diseases, including chronic wasting,” he said. “Our customers know that they are getting a healthy, low-fat product. These elk are probably the most-tested animals you can find.”

DOW officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

According to DOW’s own figures, chronic wasting disease infects from 1 to 11 percent of deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, where the disease is thought to be the most concentrated in the state.

A survey conducted by DOW indicates the disease also has been detected in southern Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, western Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Canada.

The disease is more common in deer than elk, DOW says. It attacks the brains of infected animals, along with the eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, pancreas and spleen. The disease hasn’t been found in the actual muscle tissue of deer and elk, DOW reports. After becoming emaciated and experiencing abnormal behavior and a loss of bodily functions, an infected animal will eventually die.

Perhaps some of what Porter calls “overreaction” stems from the fact that chronic wasting disease belongs to a family of diseases that include scrapie, which has been identified in sheep for more than 200 years, and mad cow disease, which affects cattle and was the subject of a massive extermination in Great Britain several years ago. However, in the case of chronic wasting disease, the World Health Organization reports that there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans, according to DOW.

Still, state wildlife officials in infected areas have increased efforts to combat the disease, including beefed-up research and testing programs. Besides the Collbran buck, two elk have also tested positive for chronic wasting disease in western Colorado this fall. One elk was taken in Routt County and the other in Summit County.

Porter doesn’t dispute that chronic wasting disease exists. As a matter of fact, he thinks it’s more widespread than reports indicate. He says that the disease is probably somewhat of a natural thinning-out process that’s existed for at least 20 or 30 years.

“I’d guess that 20 percent of the deer in the endemic area (in northeastern Colorado) have the disease,” he said. “But people have been hunting up there for generations, and we haven’t found that it affects people in any way.”

According to DOW, Porter is right. Epidemiologists with the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have found, in 16 years of study in Colorado alone, there’s no evidence that chronic wasting disease poses a risk to humans or domestic animals.

Still, the Colorado Wildlife Commission is now requiring that all hunters submit the heads of deer and elk they kill in a specific area in northeastern Colorado, and are strongly recommending testing be done on any deer or elk killed during hunting season throughout Colorado. Testing costs around $25. Currently, the only test that can confirm the presence of chronic wasting disease must be conducted on a dead animal. Brain, neural and lymph node tissues are the only substances that scientists can use to detect the disease.

“It’ll be great when a test is developed for live animals,” said Porter.

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