Cull of the wild
Efforts are expanding to curtail spread of chronic wasting disease
Steamboat Springs — Residents in northwestern Colorado are going to have to get used to the fact wild deer will be killed as the Colorado Division of Wildlife attempts to control a fatal brain disease that poses numerous unanswered questions.
So far, wildlife officials have killed 329 wild mule deer around the Motherwell Ranch in southwestern Routt County since April 1 to determine the extent of a chronic wasting disease outbreak in deer and elk herds.
And the killing is not expected to stop there. Future culling efforts are being planned later this summer by wildlife officials.
These deer and future herds have to die because four deer in this remote area southwest of Hayden have tested positive for the disease.
“We hope there are not any more than that,” DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said of the four deer that have tested positive so far. “But we may have to kill a large number of deer to stop the disease in its tracks.”
State officials learned of the first cases of CWD west of the Continental Divide in Colorado when two deer fenced in with a commercial elk herd last summer at the Motherwell Ranch tested positive for the disease at the end of March.
State officials took swift action by killing 311 deer in a five-mile radius of the ranch between April 1-3.
Of those deer, two more deer killed in the same area miles from the ranch tested positive for the disease.
Because of the results, wildlife officials killed 18 additional deer Wednesday in the area where the two CWD-positive deer were killed. Test results from these deer are expected to be available early this week. How the deer got the disease is under investigation.
The disease attacks the brains of infected deer and elk, causing the animals to starve to death.
A mutant protein causes the disease, and there is not a vaccine or a cure for it. How CWD is spread is not known.
Culling must be done because there is also no viable way to test a live animal for the disease.
Because of the cases on the Western Slope, Gov. Bill Owens created a task force last week to tackle the issue.
Although the state is taking an aggressive approach in northwestern Colorado, some question the state’s response to the disease in northeastern Colorado.
One critic of the state’s response to the disease of the “endemic area” is the Colorado Elk Breeders Association.
The association, which represents 40 domestic elk ranches in 20 communities in western Colorado, claims the DOW has not been aggressive enough in dealing with chronic wasting disease in deer herds in the area, which is north, northwest, west and southwest of Fort Collins.
“We have been asking them for years to do something about it,” said Ron Walker, president of the association. “My dream is they can eradicate it, but that is not likely. Hopefully, they can get it under control and maintained.”
State Sen. Jim Isgar and Rep. Diane Hoppe, who chair the House and Senate Agriculture committees, applaud the governor’s efforts but want similar action taken in Northeast Colorado.
“Western Colorado faces enormous economic consequences if the state cannot control CWD, because hunting is a $2 billion industry in our region,” Isgar said. “Gov. Owens has moved quickly and decisively on this issue, but we need the same kind of action throughout the state.”
The two leaders said guidelines are in place for domestic elk facilities to deal with CWD, but the wild herds of elk and deer must be dealt with.
Infection rates in Colorado’s wild herds are estimated at less than 1 percent for elk and between 4 percent and 5 percent among deer.
“We must act more decisively in controlling CWD in the wild,” Hoppe said. “Whether it is on the Western Slope on in northeastern Colorado, the urgency to act quickly and effectively is the same.”
Malmsbury said the DOW has gotten aggressive in northeastern Colorado in controlling the disease in recent years as it has learned more about CWD.
Malmsbury said the DOW’s response to the disease has been controversial.
“Some say we are acting too aggressive, and others think we haven’t been aggressive enough,” he said.
To deal with the disease in northeastern Colorado, the DOW is planning to reduce the estimated 25,000 deer in the endemic area by 20 percent, Malmsbury said.
Malmsbury said the deer will be killed in a number of ways, which includes issuing special hunting permits.
The reason the DOW is planning to reduce the deer population is to lower the density among the deer herds.
“By lowering the density, we should reduce the prevalence of the disease,” he said.
Malmsbury said the DOW is only targeting deer because the infection rate among elk is low.
“That doesn’t mean in the future we won’t focus on elk,” Malmsbury said. “But for some reason the disease progresses differently in elk.”
Walker said the domestic elk industry is not the source of the CWD outbreaks.
Of 1,561 elk that were killed this winter at nine facilities across the state, 32 elk tested positive with CWD. The disease was found in 29 elk in Stoneham, two in Del Norte and one in Ault, which is about 2 percent.
“Our herds are not riddled with the disease, although it fits the political agendas of some to portray them that way,” Walker said. “These results show the elk ranches are the victims of CWD, not the cause.”
Walker also questions the state’s ability to control CWD when Wyoming is not taking any steps to eradicate deer there.
“It doesn’t do us any good if Wyoming does not clean up its herd,” Walker said.
Malmsbury said the DOW’s culling efforts in the endemic area will kill deer that migrate between the two states.
Prior to hunting season, the DOW may issue special hunting permits for deer this summer in northwestern Colorado.
Malmsbury said 300 deer could be killed to test for the disease prior to hunting season later in the year. The DOW is also planning to have every deer that is killed during hunting season tested for the disease.
The Motherwell Ranch is also being impacted. The Department of Agriculture is planning to eliminate the ranch of the 140 elk it currently houses.
Officials are not sure when the elk will be killed. However, the department has quarantined the facility to ensure none of the elk leave the premises. Once the elk are killed, they also will be tested for CWD.
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