- DEL NORTE, Colo. - "Got
elk?" read the signs along a highway, steering curious drivers to
a dirt-and-gravel driveway on the western fringe of the San Luis Valley's
- Not anymore.
- The 337 elk that once wandered in the shadows of the
San Juans, at the Rancho de Anta Grande - "Ranch of the Big Elk"
- were slaughtered in February, their heads sawed off and the carcasses
tossed into a makeshift blast furnace that reduced the once-elegant herd
to an ash pile the size of a minivan.
- Government workers from the U.S. and Colorado departments
of agriculture were forced to do the dirty, depressing job, but the true
culprit was the brain-rotting sickness called chronic wasting disease.
- It's a killer so feared by regulators that entire elk
herds, like Anta Grande's, are slaughtered even though officials know only
a tiny handful of the exposed creatures are probably carrying the disease.
But they do not want to take any chances.
- "My whole ranch was based off these elk," said
Rich Forrest, owner of the ill-fated Anta Grande ranch.
- Wandering among his condemned herd on the chilly eve
of the slaughter, he reminisced of breeding the "mellow," gentle
animals that he could greet day and night by just walking out the back
door of his home.
- If elk ranches had obituaries, CWD would be the cause
of death for 38 U.S. facilities since 1997, places such as Anta Grande,
and others with majestic, even macho names, like Trophy Mountain, All American
Antler and TNT Elk.
- A relatively young industry, elk ranches have been converted
to killing fields in six states: Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma,
South Dakota and Kansas. Total dead: more than 3,800. Total shown to be
infected: about 180, with some tests outstanding.
- In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the government
has slaughtered nearly 8,000 elk on 39 game farms. In March, the crisis
spread to the province of Alberta, where 150 elk will likely be the first
to die on a newly infected ranch in that province. If history holds, they
won't be the last.
- Forrest spent years as an exploration geologist, the
kind of rock hound who forgoes the beaten path in a worldwide search for
overlooked mineral lodes.
- For health reasons, a doctor recommended that Forrest
change his lifestyle, starting with food. Elk meat was placed on the menu
because it's leaner, lower in cholesterol and easier on the heart. By 1997,
Forrest had taken that advice a giant step further.
- In keeping with his tendency to look outside the mainstream,
Forrest spotted a hot Korean market for velvet from elk antlers. Naturally,
he began raising the animals himself.
- He purchased a domestic herd and a scenic ranch near
the town of Del Norte, not far from where the waters of the Rio Grande
pour out of the spectacular San Juan Range. "Idyllic," he called
- Among his proudest achievements were two bulls that churned
out velvet by the pound. In contests most Americans don't have the faintest
idea even exist, his animals won big prizes.
- Meat would prove another biggie for Forrest. He set up
a store where passersby could purchase from a smorgasbord of elk meats
- "Rib Eye Steak, the hunter's favorite, $19.50 per pound," says
his Internet menu.
- Another big market: raising and selling trophy bulls
to hunting ranches. Breeders can get thousands of dollars per animal selling
big-antlered elk to shooting ranches. Those operations, in turn, charge
perhaps $5,000 to $20,000, or even more, for the right to "hunt"
and kill the penned animal.
- That elk can represent both elegant wildlife, and a modern-day
version of penned cattle, was summed up by Montana game rancher Len Wallace,
who once told a writer, "Elk are a grand animal, they have a grandeur,"
- "But they are a crop."
- How chronic wasting disease spread ranch-to-ranch and
state-to-state, even possibly from zoos, is a complicated, controversial
tale fraught with speculation.
- But CWD's tear through Colorado's elk industry appears
easier to explain - and it was a rampage that went right through Rich Forrest
and his Anta Grande ranch.
- The end for Forrest began in March 2000, when he purchased
16 female calves from the Elk Echo Ranch, a large elk operation located
near a blip on the prairie of northeastern Colorado, a tiny town called
- A year went by, nothing appeared amiss.
- Then, in May 2001, Forrest saw one of those former Elk
Echo calves, now a 2-year-old adult, dropping weight like a hunger-striker.
Forrest had one thought.
- "I'm toast."
- Forrest, 54, with a master's degree and a mountain-man-kind
of independence, was a quick study. That dreaded invader, chronic wasting
disease, was here.
- "I tried to make her comfortable," he said.
"Most people would have tried to medicate her. I knew that wasn't
going to make any difference."
- "The other animals seemed to sense something was
awry with her," said Colorado state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham.
- The sick cow died in late August.
- Following state rules set down in 1998, Forrest agreed
to have the elk's brain tissues analyzed. Tests at a Wyoming laboratory
revealed the telltale microscopic cavities that signal CWD.
- On Sept. 14, the state veterinarian ordered the entire
Anta Grande herd quarantined - the elk-equivalent of a sentence to death
by lethal injection.
- Why? There is no proven way to test a live elk for CWD,
a deficiency in the science of the disease that forces regulators to wipe
out an entire herd when exposed to even a single sick animal.
- Livestock regulators traced the infected animal back
to Elk Echo. On Sept. 24, that ranch, too, was placed under quarantine.
So were three nearby elk ranches that frequently mixed livestock with Elk
- Soon after, on Oct. 1, the Trophy Mountain shooting ranch
in north-central Colorado, near Cowdrey, was quarantined after a bull elk
killed by a hunter turned up CWD-positive. Two Trophy Mountain elk would
test positive in later weeks.
- All three of those animals came from Elk Echo.
- Almost overnight, the Stoneham facility found itself
at the vortex of the disease's spread.
- In hindsight, it wasn't surprising.
- The Elk Echo ranch is within the so-called "endemic
area" of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming where 5 percent to
15 percent of wild deer are believed to carry the infection, and may have
passed it to the captive elk.
- On top of that, Elk Echo owner Craig McConnell was, by
his own admission, among the most aggressive elk dealers in the country.
- Soon, agriculture regulators would trace 158 elk, most
from Elk Echo, to 22 other ranches in Colorado. They traced about 250 more
from Elk Echo - and from other Colorado ranches that had hosted CWD-exposed
Elk Echo animals - to ranches in 15 other states.
- All 400-plus elk were killed. After testing, regulators
found that eight Colorado ranches had been exposed to infected elk from
Elk Echo. Another ranch, TNT in Longmont, also had infected elk, but it
appears - though it can't be proved - that those animals picked up CWD
from wild animals in the endemic area.
- Nationally, only one ranch, in Kansas, is known to have
ended up with an infected animal connected to Elk Echo.
- With a condemned herd, Forrest could do little more than
await the execution date. It wouldn't come for four-plus months.
- It took that long for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
to free up money to compensate Forrest and other owners of quarantined
elk ranches. The payment - of up to $2,850 per CWD-free animal - was the
cost the public paid to slaughter thousands of healthy animals to nab the
handful of sick ones lurking in the crowd.
- It wasn't until a frigid day in February when state and
federal workers descended on the site and set up the killing line.
- The first step: Dig a cremation pit, 40 feet long, 8
feet wide and 15 feet deep, where Forrest would watch workers incinerate
- The job began early the next day. The workers injected
each elk with a sedative, xylazine, then steered the groggy creatures through
chutes and onto a platform, where they administered an overdose of sodium
pentabarbital, the same drug commonly used to euthanize aging family pets.
- Another team worked the carcasses onto a flatbed truck,
four at a time, to carve out tissue samples from the liver, kidney, muscle
and intestines. Still another team beheaded the animals for study of brain
- With gruesome efficiency in miserable weather, a team
of about a dozen people put down the entire herd in less than a week.
- Weeks after February's government-run slaughter at Forrest's
ranch, brain tissues examined at a Colorado State University diagnostic
laboratory found only two additional elk of the 337 to be carrying the
- The overall findings at Anta Grande were a relief to
state veterinarian Cunningham, who expected five or six positives.
- At Stoneham, after killing 1,019 animals, 29 tested positive,
a fairly big number, but still just 3 percent of the elk. But in seven
South Dakota herds slaughtered in recent years, 110 of 353 captive elk
were found with CWD, a rate of nearly 33 percent.
- As for Forrest, he's recovering from the heartbreaking
ordeal. He and his wife have created a CWD foundation, devoted to advancing
the science on the disease, particularly in areas where the government
may not be looking.
- He's now in the elk meat distribution business, selling
product raised on other ranches. But he misses his animals. Whether he
can restock his ranch remains unclear.
- Part of the official concern: Would his soil be contaminated
with the nearly indestructible prion that infected his previous elk?
- Forrest hopes something is worked out.
- "We will stay in the elk business one way or the
other," Forrest said. "Maybe even get a few elk as pets again
- if the government will let us."