On a cold and windy morning last Dec. 7, livestock officials began killing the elk on the Kesler Game Farm near Philipsburg, Mont.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
operation cost Montana about $60,000, Gertonson
If the Department of Livestock is satisfied
with its handling of the Kesler problem, it is pretty much
"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
"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
"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
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
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.
September 1999, a small Colorado herd was
* Two herds are under quarantine in
Canada, which has a large game farm
industry of its own, has banned the importation of elk or deer from
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 has
reported extensively the spread of chronic wasting disease. He
lives in Corvallis,
You can contact
* Montanans Against the Commercialization of
Wildlife, Gary Holmquist, 13320 Sapphire Drive, Lolo, MT 59847
* State Veterinarians, Animal
Health Office at the Montana Department of Livestock,