A recent Timberjay article asked a compelling question: Will elk reintroduction in Minnesota be undermined by fears about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)? As scientists are concerned about the accidental spread of CWD, the situation exposes double standards in wildlife politics.
CWD has unfortunately become a political issue as the disease has been detected more frequently in the past few years in Minnesota. Recent bills in the state legislature have sought to bring the hammer down on the many deer and elk ranches in Minnesota that produce meat and velvet or supply private game ranches.
Supporters claim that deer and elk ranches are a threat for the accidental spread of CWD since they move animals between Minnesota and other states.
This then begs the question: Doesn’t elk reintroduction run the same risk? It actually may be worse.
Deer and elk ranches already have federal regulations governing the interstate movement of animals. In order to move elk, they must have tested their herd for CWD for a minimum of 5 years with zero positive results. Many ranches have been testing for 15 years or more with no issues. In the rare instance CWD is detected, a ranch can be quarantined and depopulated.
In contrast, elk reintroduction programs do not have to abide by the same precautions. Elk reintroduction programs in other states have used animals that can be traced back to CWD-positive states such as Utah and Kansas. Since the only reliable CWD tests are post-mortem, there’s a risk of moving the disease to a new area.
Unlike in a closed facility like a ranch, elk reintroduced on public lands can spread disease more freely. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Our organization, which represents elk ranchers, does not oppose elk reintroduction if it’s done responsibly to minimize the risk of CWD spreading. After all, our members’ livelihoods are based around these majestic animals.
But we also think that the playing field should be fair. If the state is going to import elk, it should go through the same precautions that elk ranchers have to go through.
Consider this: If a private ranch imported an elk without going through the proper CWD (and TB and Brucellosis) protocols, it would be a federal crime. But state wildlife agencies got themselves an exemption from these same rules.
A spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources rightly notes that the agency can’t tell the public not to move deer and elk on one hand while doing the same thing itself on the other hand. But the leadership of the agency has at the same time been singling out deer and elk ranches in Minnesota for oppressive regulations.
This needs to end. Passing laws or proposing regulations to prohibit ranches from doing business won’t accomplish anything when they must already abide by strict federal protocols.
If the DNR and state lawmakers are truly concerned about limiting CWD, then they need to focus on ensuring safeguards are in place for elk reintroduction.
Travis Lowe is executive director of the North American Elk Breeders Association