Utah's domesticated elk program at 'critical juncture' due to disease, state says

An elk is pictured bugling in this Sept. 13, 2017, photo. Utah agricultural leaders say chronic wasting disease among domestic herds has them questioning the future of the state's domestic elk program.

An elk is pictured bugling in this Sept. 13, 2017, photo. Utah agricultural leaders say chronic wasting disease among domestic herds has them questioning the future of the state's domestic elk program. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's domesticated elk program is in peril because of a growing threat of chronic wasting disease traced to an outbreak in Utah and Canada, state agriculture officials warn.

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

"I've been accused of trying to shut this program down, our state vet has been accused of trying to shut this program down — our concern is not and our intent is not to shut the program down but under current regulations and rules, we have come to a point where we can no longer operate a viable domesticated elk program here in the state," Buttars told members of the committee during a hearing Wednesday morning.

Utah's domesticated elk program turned 25 years old this year, created through the Domesticated Elk Act that the Utah Legislature passed in 1997. The legislation paved the way for approved Utah farms to raise elk essentially in the same way any other livestock would be handled, including being harvested for meat, pelt and antlers. Mature bulls can also be sold for hunting on private property.

There are currently 36 farms, hunt parks and zoos approved under this program across the state, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

But Buttars said its success hinges on preventing chronic wasting disease, a transmissible disease that impacts the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. The disease, which is 100% fatal in infected creatures, causes brain lesions and other issues before the creature eventually dies. It's considered "relatively rare" but has circulated around Utah wildlife since at least 2002, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

It's a disease that can only be discovered after the animal dies, which makes it difficult to prevent. There have been a little over 100 confirmed cases in Utah wildlife over the past two decades.

The problem, Buttars explains, is that there are a growing number of cases emerging among Utah farms and similar farms in Canada, which are likely the source of Utah's cases.

Farms in Canada have supplied nearly 90% of the domestic elk imported into Utah since 2017, according to department data. Buttars wrote in an adjoining memo that a spread of chronic wasting disease in Canada and Utah has the program at a "critical juncture," causing a quarantine at Utah farms and an inability to import Canadian elk.

"Alberta, Canada, is rapidly being overrun with (chronic wasting disease) and this is making it difficult to find herds that qualify for entry into the state," he told the committee, noting that the Canadian government informed the state they are aware of 12 herds that tested positive for the disease since 2017 and were only able to confirm two of those farms didn't send elk to the U.S.

"This means that (there were) 10 positive herds likely imported in Utah and we were only notified about two earlier this year," Butters added. "Our animal health staff was able to determine the identity of one other herd based on animal IDs provided but we still have seven unknown and likely positive farms that have 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.

Though the 36 farms and hunt parks are required to be fenced off from wild herds, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, expressed concern that Utah's domestic cases could reach wild herds. Dr. Dean Taylor, the Utah state veterinarian, clarified there are cases of the disease already out in the wild herd but it isn't "uniformly throughout the state at this point."

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

The department is only starting to do similar tests following the recent information about cases in Canada. However, if the state continues to import elk from Canada, he believes the risk will only increase. This is why the department is requesting the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee to review if the Legislature believes the program is worth continuing.

If they believe it's worth keeping around, it asks if the state should continue allowing in elk from Canada or if changes should be made to increase access to elk. It also asked the committee to review if the U.S. Department of Agriculture should take control of the state's herd certification program, if testing requirements from farms and hunt parks should be alerted or if facilities with confirmed disease cases should continue as farms.

It's a lot to consider because even a pause of the program could put some of the 36 farms out of business, Buttars said.

"We are probably at a new crossroads (and) we need to relook at some things," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.

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

Steve Stieler, representing the North American Elk Breeders Association, said that domestic breeders share a concern with protecting wild herds, as well. All of this is why elk breeders want to help as the state reviews the future of the program because of what's at stake.

"There are some real people, real families that care about this outcome," he said. "They depend upon this for their livelihood."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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