Well, as entrepreneur elk ranchers for nearly 10 years, we are finally coming to a close on all our wonderful years of being able to look out the window and see beautiful elk placidly grazing in the pastures. Along with all the sadness of the national news of the Twin Towers devastation and all that has gone with it, we definitely feel that our own two towers (Elk Echo Ranch & All American Antler Ranch) have taken quite a devastating hit as well. Because we have been personally asked to state the facts here, and at the risk of this being more than a bit lengthy, the following is only a small part of our story.
Ten years ago today, we were raising cattle, and had run combines and worked in the oil patch. Our ranch did not have CWD. When we started in the elk business in February of 1992, our goal was to help the little man to thrive in business and make the elk business flourish.
With all the orders we had for elk, I once spent $122,000 in 3 hours at the Minnesota Elk Sale! We bought elk from 62 people, including 4 dispersal herds. I was very successful at buying and selling. In order to not only keep alive, but thrive, buying and selling is the name of the game - and I loved it!
Where did I get CWD? Of all you elk ranchers that read this, you know who I have bought from. From which of your ranches did it come? I don't blame anybody in the elk business for getting it - and good management does not stop it; but it is here.
In 1997, we were a trace-back from Nebraska; in 1999 we were a trace-back again from Nebraska; in March of 2001, we had a sub-clinical animal die of other reasons; and in September of 2001, Rich had a 27 month old heifer die, which came from my ranch as a 10 month old calf; then 2 weeks later, we went out into the same original pasture-mates and killed the thinnest looking one. Actually it didn't look anything like the terrible pictures we've seen of deer in the last stages, and the rest of the group were and still are beautiful animals. However, we were told that it tested positive for CWD.
So in other words, in the last 4 years, out of 4 ranches consisting of approximately 1,600 elk, we have had a total of 5 animals, which died by one means or another, and tested positive. Wow! Many a rancher has had scours kill 10 calves in 2 weeks.
We have sold over 600 head of elk to 42 different ranches in many states and they are all living. So a word to the aggressive elk ranchers today: if you are aggressive and you buy and sell many animals, you will be the #1 target sooner or later. If you want to sit on the sidelines and have a closed herd and have the mind-set that I am not buying from anyone, but you can buy from me, the industry will go down the tube. What a quandary! And sitting still is not what business is all about.
Four things that must be addressed or the industry will suffer greatly: a) perception of CWD;
b) each state being on a different page in regards to testing and regulations; c) being regulated to death; and last, but not least, d) allowing the restaurants to still be able to call red deer meat elk on the menu. I have fought these things for nearly 10 years and in order to conquer any of these, it is going to take all of us, working together with NAEBA to conquer them.
We first learned of CWD through our own industry. It was not until March of 1996 that our CEGBA president, Liz Chandler, lined up Beth Williams from the Laramie Vet Lab to come do a seminar on CWD at our state convention to make us aware of it. We learned then that the DOW has known about it for a long, long time (which has now been over 35 years.) No one told us when we got into the business that our wonderful Department of Wildlife (DOW) had a contaminated pen of deer & elk in the mountains.
When the ban on raising red deer in Colorado was decreed, the DOW got the bright idea to trade some of their elk for the hybrid animals. These elk were put in the contaminated pen for who knows how long (DOW now says 6 months) and Mike Miller from DOW stated (back in 1993 or 1994) that this probably was not a good idea. But they did it anyway and maybe thought the problem would go away. As far as I know, there are only 4-5 people that know of this incident and one of them is no longer alive.
So where did this disease come from? How long has it been here? Korea now has it. Where did they get it? If I had known some of these answers then and what we would have to go through right now, I probably wouldn't have got into the business. For sure, if I had thought I had the disease, I would not have sold animals to anyone. I love this business and I can see tremendous opportunity in several areas. But I am willing today to have my whole herd of 700 head put down so I will not ruin any other ranch with this contaminated perception. They are essentially saying that our little calf got it at 3 months of age. There needs to be a live animal test done as soon as possible in order for this industry to continue.
We in Colorado have found the disease because we are looking for it. Your states that are not in the program had better get on board yesterday. We in Colorado go out and separate and/or kill our higher risk animals. This is how you begin to put a stop to CWD.
But as long as our wonderful DOW does not do one thing, it is going to be a long road ahead. For an example, there is an area along the front range that has 15% infected deer & .01% infected elk. Two years ago, hunter-killed deer were supposed to have the heads turned in for testing. Last year they sold 3 times as many licenses to hunters in that area and dropped the brain testing. Isn't that a great way to go about solving the problem?
Now you see the battle that the entire elk industry must fight. If you ranchers want to stay in business, you MUST start new ranches out on a good foot and you MUST sell and buy from each other along the way.
To date, we have started 157 people in the elk business in 18 different states, Germany, Canada, and Thailand. I have worked very closely with the state officials in having one of the very best monitored herds out here in NE Colorado. Never once have I tried to ruin anyone's reputation in the elk business. We feel safe in saying that the vast majority of our thousands of Bed & Breakfast guests from 49 states and 28 countries left our ranch with a very positive outlook on raising elk. However, sadly, this negativity will convince many more that it is maybe not such a good idea after all.
We hope this sheds a little more light on what has happened and what we are going through today. We sincerely hope it doesn't happen to you. And eliminating three ranches in Colorado definitely does not solve the problem. It is a step in working through the process. I would like to continue to be member of the associations and will direct my energies into buying and selling elk for meat and transporting elk for others. We definitely need these services for the little man.
In closing, the disease did not shut us down, but the perception certainly did. We started as a little man and within 30 days we will go out as a little man with zero head of elk on 2,000 acres of a beautiful, rolling hills, former elk ranch. We ask for no sympathy from anybody, but we can say that we have been there and done that.
We would be glad to answer any questions and help anybody in this business in whatever capacity that we are capable of now. This may not have been exactly what you wanted to hear, but reality has hit and we thank you for your time.
Since we wrote this article straight from our hearts to wapiti.net, some things have only gone from bad to worse.
We have learned first-hand how cruelly deceitful the media can be and how expertly they can twist and distort the truth to the point where you cannot even recognize what was supposed to be your own words. We have learned how they can portray subterfuge when there is none, at least on an elk rancher's part. They have portrayed to the public that our State Vet and we are in some sort of conflict, which we definitely are not! They have portrayed that we are some kind of criminals, when all we have been doing is trying to make an honest and profitable living at something we love. We have continued to stay in close contact with Dr. Cunningham and he has told us many times how distressed and badly he feels over what they have printed about this issue and us.
We have tried to understand what is happening here, and realization is dawning! One very prominent newspaper has a writer who is trying to make a name for himself, is on very good terms with the DOW, and seems to be their tool for polluting our good reputation that we have worked so hard to establish. DOW is trying their hardest to find fault and discredit what the Department of Agriculture has done concerning their regulation of our industry in hopes that they could take the reins again.
The Department of Agriculture and the State Brand Board has done a wonderful job of putting protocols in place and we are proud of them for facing each issue with common sense and practicality. We can now see that the DOW is using us as a little "pawn" in their huge chess game. Their motive is to turn the tide of public opinion against elk ranching and then bring it to a public vote, which they are hoping will go against us and possibly lead to banning the whole industry in Colorado. If they focus the blame on the alternative livestock industry, "they" have won a battle, as it shifts the attention from the origin of the problem, which lies at their doorstep.
If they can get away with getting outright lies into print, "they" will have won another battle. If "they" can speak unemotionally, just remember that is it not their own babies which they have named and loved watching grow up and even winning contests. Nor is it their personal livelihood or lifestyle at stake. If they can get us to fight amongst ourselves, that gives them some more strength to fight on another front. How many battles does it take for them to begin to win the war? Unfortunately, we are finding out.