Two more elk herds in Minnesota will be destroyed for testing as the search goes on to determine how a single elk on a farm near Aitkin was exposed to chronic wasting disease, killing it last summer.
The newly condemned elk are in herds where the bull, known as Elk 776, had once grazed. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was detected in Elk 776’s brain tissue on Aug. 30 after it died near Aitkin, and that herd has already been destroyed.
State officials said Monday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved funding to pay farmers in Stearns and Benton counties for the 55 additional elk that soon will be destroyed.
In August 2000, Clayton Lueck bought Elk 776 for his family’s farm in Aitkin County. The elk died there in the first and only known case of the brain-wasting disease in Minnesota.
In September and October, the other 48 elk on the farm owned by Lueck’s family were destroyed and their brains tested — the only way at this time that the disease is tested for. The elk tested negative, and the department paid Lueck for them.
“I’m almost 100 percent certain that it didn’t come from my farm,” Lueck said Monday of the CWD. “If it had come from my farm, another elk would have had to be the carrier and would have tested positive.”
The incubation period for CWD is believed to be 16 months to three years, though a few experts say it could be as long as five years.
Now, the hunt goes on for the origin of Elk 776’s exposure. On Monday, officials with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health said the two herds where it grazed previously will be destroyed for testing in several weeks.
Those owners — Duane and Sandy Thene of rural Sauk Rapids and James and Elaine Moscho of Sauk Centre — want the testing done. Their herds have been quarantined for three months.
Lueck bought Elk 776 from the Moschos in August 2000. The Moschos boarded Elk 776 at the Thene farm, from January 1999 to July 2000.
The Moschos, who specialized in artificial insemination, bought and sold elk much more than many other owners. It’s unknown whether officials will try to trace any elk that had left the Moscho farm or had been boarded at the Thene farm before the quarantines.
Such decisions will be made after testing on the Thene and Moscho herds, said Malissa Fritz, a spokeswoman for the Board of Animal Health.
Board investigators have received conflicting stories about where 776 was kept in late 1997 and 1998. Because that would have been before the three-year CWD incubation period, officials haven’t probed that issue in depth, they said.
But if other elk on the Moscho and Thene farms test positive, the location of Elk 776 in 1997 and 1998 could become important, as other exposures to the disease would be traced.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s $70 million-a-year elk industry has slowed to a standstill as other states remain reluctant to allow Minnesota elk across their borders.
The Minnesota Elk Breeders Association pushed for the testing of the Thene and Moscho herds and hired a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., where the Agriculture Department funding decision was made, to hurry the process.
“We made quite a few phone calls,” said Brenda Hartkopf, executive secretary of the Elk Breeders Association.
“This process needed to be completed before we could move on, so we’re really happy to see that it’s progressing.”