MABTON, Wash. — Rocky Ross swung his sport utility vehicle into the Sunnyside Wildlife Area, certain he had caught his prey: illegal carcass dumpers.
His grin twisted into a wry smile when the quarry turned out to be two reporters caught peering at a half-dozen dead calves.
The wildlife area, located just three miles from the dairy farm where the nation’s first case of mad cow disease was discovered, has been turned into a dump site for dead animals — everything from goats, sheep and calves to cats and puppies.
Ross has managed the 10,538-acre wildlife area in this Yakima Valley town for more than two years, but the problem has gone on much longer. He attributes it to a few local farmers who don’t have the money to properly dispose of animals that die before slaughter and who lack respect for public lands.
The problem had nothing to do with mad cow disease — until now.
The Washington mad cow case, ensuing international bans on U.S. beef products and new regulations designed to prevent another incident raise questions about how dead farm animals should be disposed of and whether the costs will rise too high for some farmers.
“It’s still a big unknown,” said Tom Cook, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Renderers Association.
Farmers currently are allowed to bury animals on their own property, dump them at licensed landfills or send them to rendering plants where the carcasses are exposed to extreme heat and reduced to bone and tallow.
Renderers used to provide their services to farmers free of charge. Rising costs and declining value of the byproducts forced them to start charging, Cook said.
Recent events could drive those costs even higher.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Dec. 23 that a Washington state dairy cow had tested positive for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
More than 40 countries subsequently banned U.S. beef products, and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced sweeping changes designed to ensure the safety of the meat supply.
Those changes include an increased push for a national animal tracking system and a ban on slaughtering cows that cannot walk unaided, the same animals most likely to be tested for the disease.
Veneman said the changes may require that testing be focused on rendering plants instead of slaughterhouses.
But adding testing to the rendering plants’ duties only adds to their costs at a time when their products — meat and bone meal for feed and tallow that is used in everything from soap to fertilizer — are being turned away under the ban, Cook said.
“There are going to be added costs,” Cook said. “What costs are going to be borne by the renderers, what costs are going to be paid by somebody else, and what costs are going to be passed on to the producers? We don’t know the answer to that yet.”