The herd had been under quarantine for chronic wasting disease for over a year when an elk that had just died on the ranch was found to be infected. Local game wardens and officials from the Montana Department of Livestock provided security for what they call "the depopulation," blocking the press and any gawkers.
The ranch was a beehive of activity. Elk were sorted and separated by veterinarians armed with syringes containing a lethal mixture of drugs. Teams of pathologists and technicians followed, taking blood samples and packing brains and spinal cords and tissues for laboratory study.
Three days later, the killing was complete. Eighty-nine elk carcasses were packed into plastic lined dumpsters. Then the looming question: what to do with them?
Given the few known facts and the many mysteries of chronic wasting disease (CWD), it was a hot question (HCN, 9/27/99). No one knows how it is transmitted; only testing a dead animal reveals its certain presence. Before the expansion of the game farm industry, it was found only in elk in a small area of Wyoming and Colorado.
The disease belongs to a group of deadly maladies known as TSEs, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a group which includes the so-called "mad cow" disease which devastated the British beef industry in the early "90s. Also among the TSEs is scrapie, which has been recognized as a killer of domestic sheep for centuries, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which affects humans.
A new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease appeared in Britain during the "mad cow" epidemic and was linked to consumption of TSE-infected beef products. Since 1995, the new variant has killed over 50 people in that country.
Scientists don't know the precise origin and makeup of TSEs. What is certain is that the infectious agent is resilient. At a wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, Colo., where CWD was first recognized in 1967, researchers tried to eradicate the disease by killing all the deer and elk held there, plowing the ground to a depth of over a foot, and spraying the entire area with a powerful chlorine solution.
A year later, 12 wild elk calves were brought into the pens, said Wyoming biologist Beth Williams, one of the early researchers into chronic wasting disease. Within five years, two were dead of CWD.
At the Kesler Game Farm, livestock officials proposed shipping the 89 carcasses to a landfill in Great Falls, Mont., 250 miles away. That idea swiftly ran afoul of public opinion.
Arnold Gertonson, the state veterinarian, told the Missoulian, "People are saying, "We don't want them here, we don't want them there." But nobody is telling me where they want them, or how to handle them, or at what cost."
Gertonson proposed burning the carcasses, and figured it would take about 104 cords of firewood to get the job done. But no one could say for certain if the CWD agent would survive an open-air fire, or if it could be spread in blowing ashes or smoke.
Livestock officials finally imported a special waste incinerator from Mandan, N.D. Known as an air curtain incinerator, the device is set up over a deep pit and forces air down into the fire, operating on the same principle as a blacksmith's forge. Temperatures are supposed to reach from 1,700 to 2,200 degrees.
Burning - a month later
This Jan. 6, the burning began. Feed troughs and other equipment went into the fire with the elk. One hundred forty-five cords of firewood later, it was finished. Even the ashes were buried on site.
"When it warms up, we'll try to disinfect the grounds and the fences with a chlorine bath and continue to operate our surveillance," said veterinarian Gertonson, "and we'll take responsibility for maintaining the fences until July 2001. After that, it's up to Dave Kesler. We've accomplished what we set out to do."
The whole operation cost Montana about $60,000, Gertonson said.
If the Department of Livestock is satisfied with its handling of the Kesler problem, it is pretty much alone.
"The DOL is claiming some kind of victory when actually they have done everything possible to ignore this issue," said John Kober, of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
"We petitioned, yelled, and screamed for something to be done about the Kesler herd a long time ago. They did everything in their power to ignore the scientific evidence and advocate for the game farm industry at the expense of the Montana public."
Kober says his group also asked the state to test the Kesler farm's domestic sheep and cattle, since they were close to the elk herd: "They said that because there's no proof that CWD crosses species, they have no responsibility to test for it."
The state of Montana paid Kesler $56,000 as compensation for the death of his herd. While well below the market values of domestic elk, the payment outraged conservationists like Kober. The money came from funds held by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, the Department of Livestock and the Montana Alternative Livestock Producers.
"Once again, sportsmen are forced to pay for an industry that threatens both hunting and wildlife," said Kober, who was also not happy to learn that the state paid Kesler an additional $9,700 for providing firewood used to burn the dead elk.
Before the quarantine, elk from the Kesler Game Farm were shipped to a rancher in Oklahoma, and to a game farm near Hardin, Mont. Two of the Oklahoma elk were found to be infected with CWD, and officials suspect that the Hardin elk are also infected. Both game farms are currently under quarantine for the disease.
Game farm operations in other states are experiencing similar problems:
* In South Dakota, one elk herd has been voluntarily "depopulated" and incinerated by its owner after CWD was found. Another 200 elk are under quarantine elsewhere in the state.
* In September 1999, a small Colorado herd was killed.
* Two herds are under quarantine in Nebraska.
Canada, which has a large game farm industry of its own, has banned the importation of elk or deer from the U.S.
Montana state wildlife officials must now step in to try to determine if CWD has spread into the wild elk and mule deer that live around the Kesler ranch. There are wintering herds less than two miles away, according to Warden John Firebaugh, who will direct the shooting of 15 to 20 wild mule deer and elk in the area. State vets will be on hand to extract the brains of the animals and transport them to a lab in Bozeman. Firebaugh said that if the brains show no indication of infection, the meat will be donated to charity.
* Hal Herring
Hal Herring has reported extensively the spread of chronic wasting disease. He lives in Corvallis, Montana.
You can contact ...
* Montanans Against the Commercialization of Wildlife, Gary Holmquist, 13320 Sapphire Drive, Lolo, MT 59847 (406/273-7862);
* State Veterinarians, Animal Health Office at the Montana Department of Livestock, 406/444-2043.