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Jan. 1, 2004

The Weekly Wrap

The mad cow scare

Local ranchers worry about the impact

Christmas count
Local birders carry on a 103-year-old tradition

The mad cow scare
Local ranchers worry about the impact


Consumers from around the nation have reacted with alarm to the discovery of the crippling "mad cow disease" in Washington state last week. But while local residents probably need not fear contracting the disease through tainted beef, Humboldt County cattle ranchers may have more to worry about.

Lou Mora, who runs cattle with his father on their ranch in Fortuna, said Monday that unless the nation's beef industry could quell fear of the disease, the already struggling Humboldt County beef industry might suffer.

"Public perception is our biggest problem," he said. "We need to settle and stabilize the market, to keep it from going down. We've already taken a significant hit."

The human form of mad cow, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), is a horrifying illness that attacks and gradually destroys the brain and central nervous system. Around 80 Europeans, most from the United Kingdom, died of the disease during a mad cow outbreak in the '90s. There is no known cure.

Nevertheless, a recall of beef from the Washington slaughterhouse where the infected cow was processed was considered a "Level II" recall by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning that there is only a remote chance of anyone becoming ill from the meat. Infected cattle carry the disease in their brains and spinal columns, both of which were destroyed in the case of the Washington cow. Eating muscle tissue from an infected cow is not believed to cause vCJD.

The recalled meat, which was distributed in part by Interstate Meat Distributors of Clackamas, Ore., ended up in eight western states and Guam. Interstate Meat is one of the suppliers for the Safeway and WinCo chains, both of which have stores on the North Coast.

A manager at the Eureka WinCo said Monday that although the store had not determined whether any of its beef was part of the batch that was recalled, it had pulled all Interstate Meat products from its shelves. Teena Massingill, a public affairs official with Safeway's Northern California division, said that no beef from Interstate Meat is sold in its Northern California stores.

Immediately after the infected cow was discovered, countries around the world including some of America's largest trading partners began banning U.S. beef. The bans sent the Chicago Mercantile Board price of cattle futures on a downward spiral, dropping more than10 percent in a matter of days.

The sudden fall in prices threatens to wipe out record gains in the price of beef throughout the autumn. Gary Markegard, livestock and natural resources advisor for the local U.C. Cooperative Extension office, said that the fall's highs were due to a number of factors: a mad cow scare in Canada (where the infected Washington cow originated) and a growing interest in the protein-heavy Atkins diet.

Mora said that Humboldt County ranchers were lucky that the first U.S. occurrence of the disease was discovered in the winter rather than in the summer and fall months, when sales of most local animals occur.

"We are very fortunate for the timing," he said. "Local ranchers aren't selling a lot of cattle at this time of year. Hopefully, we can return the market to regular levels by the time they do."

Many of the beef cattle produced locally are sold to feed lots in the Central Valley, where they are fattened on grains and end up as part of the national meat trade. A lasting drop in prices could have

devastating effects on the industry, already hampered by high transportation costs and competition from
industrial farming.

A recent survey of Humboldt County agriculture undertaken by the local chapter of the Farm Bureau showed that only 11 percent of the county's cattle ranchers had experienced an increase in profits over the last five years. By comparison, 22 percent of dairy farmers and 44 percent of fruit-and-vegetable producers reported increased profits over the same period.

A quarter of local beef producers said that they may be interested in selling their land. A health scare especially one as frightening as mad cow could only worsen matters.

In response to the European crisis, the United States banned the feeding of animal proteins waste products from the slaughterhouse to living cattle in 1997. The practice was found to be the means through which the disease was spread among a herd. Cattle under 6 years of age are therefore not believed to have any risk of carrying the disease, and most beef cattle are slaughtered at a much younger age.

Mora, who produces beef for the North Coast Co-op, said that he wanted to assure consumers that such reforms meant that they had no reason to shy away from beef especially local beef.

"We personally handle each animal," he said. "We know where each animal comes from. I'm 100 percent sure that the meat we sell locally is safe."

Christmas count
Local birders carry on a 103-year-old tradition


It all started back in 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman decided to do something with his anger.

For years, the "side hunt" had been a holiday tradition; hunters would organize themselves into teams and go out on Christmas Day to see which team could shoot the most birds and small animals.

As a protest against the annual slaughter, Chapman and 27 friends started a different kind of tradition on Christmas Day 103 years ago; instead of killing birds, they counted them.

Based in 25 North American locations stretching from the East Coast to Toronto, Canada, to Pacific Grove, they tallied a total of 90 different species.

Today, more than 50,000 birders, or "observers" as they're also called, participate in the annual Christmas Count, which is sponsored by the Audubon Society. The count takes place in nearly 2,000 locations, across North America and as far away as some tropical islands in the Pacific.

The count period lasts from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, a time when most birds are in the late stages of their southward migrations. The data generated by the count comprise the longest running database in ornithology; when combined with other bird surveys, they help bird experts see how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The first Christmas count in Humboldt County was held in the Centerville beach area in 1959. Today, there are four Christmas counts in the region: the "Del Norte Count," covering Del Norte County, occurred this year on Dec. 14 (many of the birders involved were from Humboldt); the "Arcata Count," started in 1984, took place on Dec. 20, and mainly covered the northern Humboldt Bay area; the "Willow Creek Count," which targets inland bird species, was held this past weekend; and the "Centerville Count" is happening this weekend.

Like the infamous side hunts, the Christmas counts are all about numbers. A total of 155 species were either seen or heard in the Del Norte count (the record is 173); 180 species were detected in the Arcata count, just two shy of the all-time record; and 79 species were detected in the Willow Creek count. (The lower number is typical for the Willow Creek count as there is a greater concentration of birds and a wider variety of habitats along the coast.)

The Arcata count produced the most remarkable findings. At the top of the list was the sighting of a Le Conte's sparrow, first seen on Dec. 2 by two Humboldt State University ornithology students. It was found again during the count on pastureland west of Arcata in the Mad River Slough Wildlife Area. It's a bird of the northern plains and at this time of year is supposed to be in the southern part of the country or in Mexico.

Longtime local birder David Fix, 46, said birders looked for the sparrow for an hour on the day of the Arcata count before they spied its distinctive orange eyebrow stripe.

Gary Lester, 51, who led the Willow Creek count, said the Arcata count produced another noteworthy sighting: an acorn woodpecker on the east side on Fickle Hill, the first time that species had ever been detected in the Arcata count.

One bird that wasn't spotted during the Arcata count was the common grackle, a big blackbird normally found east of the Rockies. It was seen on Nov. 28 along the Mad River, feeding in a field of pumpkin and corn stubble with a large flock of another type of blackbird and some crows.

Evidently the food got old, or ran out.

"Birds are just like people," Fix said. "They'll go where the action is until there's no more action."



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