Elk and deer disease could waste Western Slope

  • Chronic wasting disease chart

    Colorado Division of Wildlife, The Denver Post


Chronic wasting disease, the fatal brain malady found in elk and deer, has jumped west across the Continental Divide despite efforts by Colorado wildlife and agriculture agencies to contain it (HCN, 11/5/01: Wasting disease spreads in Colorado). In late March, wildlife officials determined that two wild deer illegally penned on the Motherwell elk ranch near Craig had contracted the disease. In an effort to determine how far the illness has spread, state biologists are killing 300 deer within a five-mile radius of the ranch. The Department of Agriculture plans to buy and kill the 103 elk from the ranching operation. Many worry that if the disease spreads, it could seriously reduce the $3 billion that hunters dump into state coffers.

"This could devastate the whole (hunting) industry," says Bob Elderkin, executive director of the Colorado Outfitters Association based in Rifle. "It's really scary."

Gov. Bill Owens is selecting an advisory group of wildlife advocates, hunters, elk farmers and state agency biologists to determine how best to handle the problem. There is no known treatment for chronic wasting disease; state policy is to kill animals suspected of having the disease. Since these efforts have apparently been insufficient, many hope the state will fund more research.

"We don't know to what extent (CWD) is out there, and it's worrisome," says Russell George, director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "But doggone it, it's happened; so shoot, now we have to be scientists and work to get some answers."

The news has spurred other Western states to action, as well. Utah, currently CWD-free, plans to take brain stem samples from animals killed during last fall's hunting season.

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