The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has banned four former Saskatchewan elk farmers from growing grain or raising livestock because their land may harbour chronic wasting disease organisms.

They’re among 40 farms in Saskatchewan where elk tested positive for the fatal brain-wasting disease after a diseased elk was imported from South Dakota in 1989. It spread when offspring of the infected elk were sold and re-sold among 39 other farms.

Federal veterinarians have killed about 8,300 elk on the 40 Saskatchewan farms — and one Alberta farm — to try eradicate the disease. It has cost the federal government $33 million to compensate the farmers for loss of their elk and for disposal costs, said Dr. Lynn Bates, of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg.

She told a weekend conference in Nisku the four Saskatchewan farms are banned from raising any livestock or growing grain until it can be proven that deer or elk won’t become re-infected.

The ban on grain is to ensure it doesn’t end up in animal feed.

There have never been any proven cases of the disease in humans and it has only shown up in elk and deer.

But while there’s no evidence that cattle or other livestock may get chronic wasting disease, it’s not entirely ruled out.

Chronic wasting disease is believed to be spread not by a bacteria or virus but by abnormal cellular proteins called prions.

The disease is related to other brain-wasting diseases that include scrapie in sheep and mad cow disease.

“The science at this time says that the environment may act as a source of the prions in a situation where you have the infection long-term,” Bates said.

Buildings and equipment at the farms have been disinfected and soil has been removed from where elk congregated, she said. But removing soil from an entire farm is impractical.

The only way the four farms could be farmed again is to stock the land with elk or deer for at least four years to see if they become infected, Bates said.

But that would be expensive and there’s no money available to do it, she said, nor is there any provision to compensate farmers prohibited from raising crops.

She refused to identify any of the farms. But elk farmer Dale Alsager, from near Maidstone, Sask., said he lives near one of them. Owners have been left with no way out, he said.

Rather than leave them in limbo, he said, the food inspection agency should eliminate the possibility of the disease re-emerging on their land. And they should be compensated for being unable to grow crops, he added.

Alsager is among a group of hard-hit Alberta and Saskatchewan game farmers who are suing the federal government for damages for having encouraged them to get into game farming.

Since chronic wasting disease was identified in Saskatchewan and Alberta, prices for farmed elk and deer have collapsed.

South Korea halted imports of elk products from North America and the U.S. halted sales of trophy deer and elk to U.S. hunt farms. Saskatchewan has barred imports of male Alberta deer and elk to its hunt farms.

Some drought-stricken farmers short of feed can’t even give their deer or elk away.