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FROM the beginning, many biologists warned that if game farms were permitted in areas that had served as traditional range for wild game, there was a severe risk that captive animals would pass on troublesome and exotic diseases to their free-ranging brethren. Since captive herds are usually made up of animals from many different farms in various parts of the country, there is always the possibility that diseases to which native wildlife have little or no natural resistance will be transmitted. Game farmers dismissed the fear as baseless, but it wasn't. In 1988 shipments of elk from the United States were thought to be responsible for introducing bovine tuberculosis to game farms across Alberta, including the Elgersma Game Farm, one of the country's first and largest. The Canadian industry was then producing more than $1.5 million worth of velvet antler a year, and operations were being established or expanded across the country, resulting in the trade and transport of large numbers of animals. In an effort to control the rapid spread of the disease, livestock officials "depopulated" fifty game farms, slaughtering 2,500 infected and exposed elk. Forty-one people received preventive treatment for tuberculosis.
In a very controversial decision Alberta game farmers were paid $13 million in compensation for the eradicated herds, even though they had been permitted to establish a portion of their breeding stock free, through the capture of wild elk. Six game farms in Montana were placed under quarantine, and one, the Elk Valley Farm, on the prairie near Hardin, was found to have infected some of the wild game that lived just outside its fences. So far at least seventy-five game-farm elk across the state are known to have escaped, and no one can say what effect they are having on wild herds, or what diseases or parasites they may have introduced.
From the archives:
"Could Mad-Cow Disease Happen Here?", by Ellen Ruppel Shell (September 1998)
Elsewhere on the Web
Chronic Wasting Disease
"Latest Incident of Elk Disease Raises Concerns About Game Farm," by Daryl Gadbow (June 29, 1999)
"State Weighs Options for Disposal of Game Farm Elk," by Duncan Adams (December 11, 1999)
Valerius Geist, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, had been warning the Canadian government for years that disease would sooner or later sweep the game-farming industry. One of the infections that Geist had predicted would show up in captive elk and deer was chronic wasting disease (CWD) -- a member of the mysterious family of degenerative brain diseases that includes mad-cow disease, which devastated the British beef industry in the early 1990s, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which produces dementia and rapid death in human beings. The diseases, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), cause destructive changes in the protein structures of the brain but trigger no response from the immune system, so there is no test that can determine infection. "We knew that CWD existed in the wild, in a small area of Colorado and Wyoming," Geist says, "and we knew that theft of wild elk was occurring, so it was just a matter of time." By the end of last year elk farms in South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado were under quarantine for CWD. The brisk trade in shooter bulls and breeding stock had given speed to a disease that had been extremely slow to spread on its own.
The Kesler Game Farm, near Philipsburg, Montana, was one of the six Montana game farms placed under TB quarantine during the early 1990s in response to the epidemic in Alberta. After the quarantine ended, the owner, Dave Kesler, made a series of shipments totaling eighty-four elk to a rancher in Oklahoma in 1996 and 1997. In May of 1998 one cow elk fell sick. The animal lost weight rapidly, slobbered uncontrollably, and demonstrated the staggering that is symptomatic of TSE infection. The elk died, and a lab test of fresh brain tissue revealed the presence of CWD. A year later an apparently healthy bull elk was killed in a brawl with other bulls on the ranch, and it, too, was found to be infected. The Oklahoma ranch was placed under quarantine, and a new quarantine was imposed on the Kesler farm. A trace of intrastate elk shipments from Kesler led to the Elk Valley Farm, placing that farm under a separate quarantine.
For three days early last December the Kesler ranch was sealed off from the outside world. Game wardens and livestock officials provided security and kept the press at bay. Strategically placed farm equipment and haystacks blocked photographers. Eighty-one elk were killed, and dozens of tissue samples were collected by a team of researchers and biologists from state and federal agencies. The elk carcasses were packed into plastic-lined dumpsters to await disposal, the nature of which sparked an angry debate. One of the mysteries of TSE is the resilience of the infectious agent: CWD is suspected of persisting in soil for years and resists most routine disinfectants. Finally, livestock officials imported a special incinerator from Mandan, North Dakota, and burned the elk carcasses and ranch equipment suspected of CWD contamination. Wildlife officials have begun trying to determine if the disease has escaped into the wild mule deer and elk that use the land around the Kesler ranch; shooting from the ground and from a helicopter, they have killed nine mule deer and one elk for testing.
ONE result of the emergence of chronic wasting disease is that the game-farming industry may never again enjoy the kind of free-for-all expansion that characterized it in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1996 Wallace applied for a new permit to enclose another 1,100 acres of his Big Velvet property. The enclosure would have displaced both a herd of wild elk and more than 750 mule deer. "There is absolutely no benefit for me in feeding the public's wildlife," Wallace said at the time, "and I have no intention of doing so." Wildlife officials, citing negative impact on public hunting opportunities due to loss of winter range and overwhelming negative public opinion, denied the permit request and successfully fought subsequent legal appeals. This was the only game-farm permit ever denied by the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Prices for breeder cow elk are down, and the marketing of elk meat has so far been slow to get off the ground. In South Dakota the brains of farm-raised elk must be certified CWD-free by a lab before the carcasses can be sold for meat. Game farmers complain that CWD-infected wild game is threatening their industry, and that they must be protected from the wild elk and deer that surround their enclosures. Experts disagree. "CWD is just not a widespread problem in free-ranging wild game," says Michael Miller, a veterinarian for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "And the only tool we have to deal with the disease in the small area of the wild where it does occur is to do a density reduction, which basically means clobbering the wild game animals. I don't think the public really wants us to do that."
Nevertheless, there remains a financial base for game farming. The Asian financial crises temporarily stymied the market for velvet antler, but prices have recently rebounded. Paula Southman, a spokesperson for the North American Elk Breeders Association, says the alternative-medicine market in the United States is in any case picking up the slack created by the fall in Asian demand. The market for shooter bulls is thriving.
Game farming will be an issue in the upcoming Montana governor's race. State Auditor Mark O'Keefe, who has announced his candidacy, is the first politician to fight the game-farming lobby, which involves the risk of also angering the loud and forceful property-rights movement. "We have to decide whether to bring this whole thing to a halt before we do irreparable harm to our wildlife,"O'Keefe says. "No new permits, no more transport of game animals into the state." Under such a moratorium, many newcomers would fold. Game-farm representatives are already talking about "takings legislation" and what compensation farmers would accept if new regulations made conducting their business impossible.
Len Wallace should not be concerned. With so many breeding elk within his fences, he will probably be able to weather any coming regulatory storm. If the worst occurs and the state shuts down the Big Velvet, Wallace can be expected to demand ample payment for the loss of his products -- which is, after all, the point of game farming.
Photograph by Michael Indresano.
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