DENVER (AP) _ At least 1,500 commercial elk are being destroyed in Colorado and other states to stop a fatal disease that threatens to spread to wild deer and elk.
The outbreak of chronic wasting disease was traced late last month primarily to the Elk Echo Ranch in Stoneham.
State Agriculture Department spokeswoman Linh Truong said 1,500 elk in Colorado were marked for destruction, beginning with 148 on Thursday, and the number could grow.
At least 245 elk that were shipped to 15 other states from Colorado ranches have been quarantined, and some or all of those will be destroyed, too.
``We're holding our breath to find out how far this has gone,'' said Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Wildlife officials, environmentalists and hunters are worried the disease could spread to deer and elk in the wild and damage the multibillion-dollar hunting and game-watching industries.
``I cannot even imagine what it would do to the hunting industry if this disease gets out into the deer population,'' said Bob Meulengracht, field director for the Mule Deer Foundation, an organization of hunters.
Recognized in 1967, chronic wasting disease causes animals to grow thin and die. It comes from the same family as mad cow disease but is not known to be transmissible to humans.
There is no known cure or treatment. And the only way to determine for certain that an animal is infected is to kill it and examine its brain.
The disease exists in the wild in the United States, but only in a single swath in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. Investigators believe it somehow spread from the wild to the ranch-raised animals.
Commercially raised elk are sold back and forth between ranches, which sell breeding stock, meat and antlers and, in some cases, allow hunting for a fee.
Colorado agricultural officials said elk from the Stoneham ranch have been delivered to ranches in North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
Bryan Richards of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife said even though only one suspect elk was imported, ``we are taking this dead serious.''
Truong said the carcasses will be destroyed using burners designed for use with diseased animals. The devices blow superheated air over the carcasses.
The U.S. Agriculture Department will pay for surveillance of the disease and reimburse ranchers whose animals are destroyed.
``Now I am history,'' said Elk Echo Ranch owner Craig McConnell, who has more than 600 head. ``I've got $4 million in elk out here. I have one bull who was going to make me $70,000-$80,000 and he is going to be a toasted marshmallow in the bottom of a hole. They are going to pay me $3,000 for him.''
With the hunting season under way, officials in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico have asked hunters to deliver the heads of deer for testing.
In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, nearly 7,000 elk exposed to the disease have been destroyed since 1996.
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