If an unlikely coalition of animal rights activists and hunters groups have their way, it may get a lot harder to raise elk in Oregon.

That could have a major impact on one of Sisters most picturesque tourist attractions - Patterson Ranch along Highway 242 at the west end of town.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will debate in Salem on Friday, January 12, whether to consider changing its existing rules about private elk ranching. The commission has received two petitions from the "MAD-Elk Coalition" - one that would phase out private elk ranching over five years and another that would allow it to continue but require ranchers to install double fencing on their ranches.

The petitioners' chief concern is the possible spread of disease - especially Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) from private elk herds into the wild. According to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), "this disease damages portions of the brain and typically causes progressive loss of body condition, behavioral changes, excessive salivation and death."

According to the ODFW, CWD has been "found in free-ranging mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming, western Nebraska and Saskatchewan. CWD also has been found in captive elk herds in South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska and Saskatchewan, Canada."

CWD has only been found in deer and elk; it has never been transmitted to humans.

The Friday hearing in Salem is only a discussion of whether or not to enter into rulemaking - no changes to the rules will be made immediately, and the commission could decide not to change its rules at all.

Still, the hearing has Patterson Ranch owner Richard Patterson concerned.

"They want us to go out of business," he said, referring to the MAD-Elk Coalition. "We're in a fight to protect the livelihood of 16 elk ranchers who have licenses."

Patterson thinks the concern about transfer of CWD from herds like his into wild deer and elk populations is out of place.

"We think we're the healthy ones," he said. "We've all been testing for six years."

Patterson said that when an animal dies or is butchered, the brain stem, tonsils and lymph nodes are shipped to a lab in Ames, Iowa, where they are tested for disease.

His operation has tested 110 times in the past six years - with negative results.

Private elk ranchers generally raise elk for breeding stock and for antlers.

Patterson said that private elk ranchers believe that CWD transmission is actually a greater threat to come from the wild into private herds than the other way around.

A second MAD-Elk Coalition petition would allow ranching to continue but mandate a second fence line 30 feet in from existing perimeter fencing. Both petitions would outlaw transfer of licenses.

Patterson said that the double fencing requirement would have almost the same effect as an outright ban on many operations.

"It would bankrupt family farms," he said. "It wouldn't bankrupt the ranch; I could probably do it, but it would be horribly expensive. And I don't want the place to look like Sing Sing (prison)."

Patterson said that he and other ranchers have submitted briefs for the commission and will travel to Salem this week to make their case.

"We don't know how that's going to go," he said. "I'm just praying that they'll be fair with us and that they'll read all the arguments."