A local couple settled a few minutes South of Black Diamond are operating a full-scale elk ranch and have done so since 1989.
The North Fork Elk Ranch is owned and operated by Pat and Tanis Downey, who harvest elk meat for both human and animal consumption.
Their product is also used in traditional medicine and elk bulls are raised and sold to "hunt ranch" markets, to various locations in Canada and the United States, where they are legal.
In light of recent discussion over Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) by the Alberta Liberal Party, the couple are discussing not only the validity and usefulness of their product, but also the extent to which they are regulated to prevent CWD from affecting their herd.
Pat says, the elk meat industry faces unparalleled regulations.
"Everything that is slaughtered here, is one hundred percent tested for CWD and always has been. Every animal that dies in Alberta has to be tested for CWD, so it's a one hundred percent compliance that's required if the elk is over a year old. As soon as the animal gets to the cooler it's tagged, and that tag can't come off until the it's been tested negative for CWD."
Pat's wife Tanis says Alberta has a stringent process for prospective elk ranchers to go through, to assure their product is certified.
"Alberta has what is called a Herd Certification Program. It's been recently revamped and now its become, as they say: "voluntary". So those that are in it have to follow some very strict protocols, but it's just a matter of being signed off by your veterinarian who preforms regular checks to your animals. We run a fully certified, compliant operation, we're breeding elk, we sell the hides, antlers, to the pet food market and human food market."
Tanis says the path to certifying a herd is a multi-year process.
"It means you go through all these different levels over the course of five years. Each year you have to be compliant to submit all the heads of your slaughtered animals, completing audits and inventories. You don't want to bring in anything from an uncertified herd into your certified herd, because then you become uncertified. Not every rancher goes through this, but we do, because we export to the United States which is a huge market for us."
Along with yearly regulations and a rigorous testing process of every slaughtered elk, Pat says, even his herd's feed is strictly mandated.
"All our feed sources have to be behind the wire, so it's not in contact with any wild cervids as another safety measure. So a lot of ranchers are now going to have to re-fence some property so they can keep their feed behind the wire. There's even some stringent conditions over water sources, so we are regulated even more."
Pat says, he knows game farms often get the blame for being alleged "hot beds" for CWD, but due to lack of scientific evidence and strict control over his trade, he's not convinced game farms are the problem, or that CWD can even be controlled.
"If the beef guys had this kind of regulation, they would all quit raising beef tomorrow, I can guarantee it. If there's a case of CWD in the wild there's nothing you can do, the only way you can fix this is nuking every single cervid in the world."
Pat says elk ranchers cannot afford to allow a case of CWD in their herd, because it would put them out of business.
"I know we get blamed for CWD all the time, but they cannot prove it came from a game farm, because anytime there is one in a game farm the entire herd is put down. There is compensation, but then we are out of business. Not only that, but all the trace-outs to that infected herd are put down. For instance, if someone buys five animals from me and I get CWD and they put all my animals down, they go back from the trace-outs from the guy who purchased from me, put those animals down and test them. If they are clean, then his herd is clean. If one of those had CWD, they put his herd down and trace those animals contact with other herds. The process goes on and on."
Pat says elk ranchers have no insurance recourse if they do not comply with regulations, as they receive no compensation in case of infections.
"The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) is forcing everybody in the elk industry to get on the program and be compliant because if you don't, there will be no compensation if you get the disease after your herd gets put down. So it's still your choice, whether you want to be compliant with their program or not, but if you don't, up until April last year whether you were on the program or not, you were entitled to a compensation. Now for those who are not on the program, will receive no compensation. "
Tanis says despite the burdensome regulation the trade entails, there's been no formal evidence of humans contracting CWD, so they plan on continuing their operation.
"Until they can prove that humans can come down with CWD, we're going to keep going. We are so carefully tested, every single head that we submit we are one hundred percent compliant. Every one of those heads get sent in for testing without a doubt."
Pat shares this sentiment, saying CWD is not only rare, but has not been proven to harm humans.
"There's no scientific evidence anywhere that CWD crosses over to humans, whereas BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) which is Mad Cow, you may get sick from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, eating infected meat. For elk, it can't cross over, and everything is tested, so there's a guarantee customers won't eat infected meat and there shouldn't be an issue. There's just bad information out there. Nobody can prove where it come from, but we can prove as game farmers that we can control it."
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