Utah’s domesticated elk program is at a “critical juncture” because of the disease, the state says Detail Explored

Utah’s domesticated elk program is at a “critical juncture” because of the disease, the state says
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SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s domesticated elk program is at risk from a growing threat of chronic wasting disease from an outbreak in Utah and Canada, agriculture officials warn.

The situation is bad enough that Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, is asking the Utah Legislature’s Acting Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment to review the program to see if it’s worth continuing and, if so, what steps should be taken. taken to keep the program afloat.

“I’ve been accused of trying to shut down this program, our state vet has been accused of trying to shut down this program – our concern is not and it’s not our intention to shut down the program, but under the current regulations and rules, we have to a point where we can no longer operate a viable domestic elk program here in the state,” Buttars told committee members during a hearing Wednesday morning.

Utah’s domesticated elk program turned 25 this year, created by the Domesticated Elk Act that the Utah Legislature passed in 1997. The legislation cleared the way for approved farms in Utah to raise elk, essentially in the same way any other animal would be treated, including being harvested for meat, hides and horns. Mature bulls can also be sold for hunting on private property.

There are currently 36 farms, game parks and zoos approved under the program statewide, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

But Buttars said its success depends on preventing chronic wasting disease, a transmissible disease that affects the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. The disease, which is 100% fatal in infected creatures, causes brain damage and other problems before the creature eventually dies. It’s considered “relatively rare” but has been roaming Utah wildlife since at least 2002, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

It is a disease that can only be discovered after the death of the animal, which makes prevention difficult. There have been just over 100 confirmed cases in Utah wildlife over the past two decades.

The problem, Buttars explains, is that there is an increasing number of cases occurring among Utah farms and similar farms in Canada, which are likely the source of the Utah cases.

Canadian farms provided nearly 90 percent of the domestic elk imported into Utah in 2017, according to department data. Buttars wrote in an accompanying memo that an outbreak of chronic wasting disease in Canada and Utah has the program at a “critical juncture,” prompting a quarantine on Utah farms and an inability to import Canadian elk.

“Alberta, Canada, is being rapidly invaded by (chronic wasting disease) and that makes it difficult to find herds that qualify for entry into the state,” he told the committee, noting that the Canadian government has informed the state that they are aware. 12 herds that tested positive for the disease since 2017 and could only confirm that two of those farms did not send elk to the US

“That means (there were) 10 positive herds probably imported into Utah and we were only notified of two earlier this year,” Butters added. “Our animal health staff was able to determine the identity of another herd based on the animal IDs provided, but we still have seven unknown and likely positive farms that imported (the disease) into Utah.”

And the inability to test for the disease in live animals puts the department in a “difficult spot,” he concluded.

Although the 36 farms and game parks must be isolated from wild herds, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, expressed concern that Utah’s domestic cases could reach wild herds. Dr. Dean Taylor, Utah’s state veterinarian, clarified that there are cases of the disease already in the wild herd, but it is not “uniform throughout the state at this time.”

Taylor also said during the meeting that in 2020, the state depopulated about 700 animals, finding one confirmed case. But since the incubation period of the disease ranges from 18 months to 7 years, he said there could have been more infected. So a rate of 1 in 700, he said, would be considered “misleading.”

The department is just beginning to do similar tests following recent information about cases in Canada. However, if the state continues to import moose from Canada, he believes the risk will increase. That’s why the department is asking the Acting Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and the Environment to consider whether the Legislature thinks the program is worth continuing.

If they think it’s worth keeping, they wonder if the state should still allow moose in Canada or if changes should be made to increase moose access. It also asked the committee to consider whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture should take over control of the state herd certification program, whether testing requirements on farms and game parks should be alerted, or whether establishments with confirmed cases of the disease should to continue as farms.

That’s a lot to consider because even a break in the program could put some of the 36 farms out of business, Buttars said.

“We’re probably at a new crossroads (and) we have to re-examine some things,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.

Meanwhile, industry experts who attended Wednesday’s meeting expressed support for finding solutions to keep the program going beyond 25 years, even if it means finding new areas to import elk from because of disease concerns .

Steve Stieler, who represents the Elk Ranchers Association of North America, said domestic ranchers share a concern about protecting wild herds. All of which is why elk ranchers want to help as the state reviews the future of the program because of what’s at stake.

“There are real people, real families who care about this outcome,” he said. “They depend on it for their livelihood.”

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