CWD – is Eagle County next? | VailDaily.com
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CWD – is Eagle County next?

Cliff Thompson
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND OF APRIL 13-14--FILE ** A tagged elk is shown at the All American Antler Ranch in Stoneham, Colo., Feb. 22, 2002. This elk was later euthanized, part of an effort by state officials to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease. The diseae causes animals to grow thin as it destroys their brains. Wildlife ranchers are concerned chronic wasting disease could affect the state's hunting industry that attracts thousands of hunters annually. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)
AP | AP

Bill Heicher and Bill Andree are among 60 people aiming to snuff out an outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, before it spreads. Discovery of the fatal affliction that affects both deer and elk was made in March at the Motherwell Ranch, between Meeker and Hayden.

It’s the first time CWD has been discovered on Colorado’s Western Slope, and should it spread the implications for Eagle County’s economy are significant.

So far no infected animals have been found in Eagle County or in any other Western Slope area. Many wildlife officials, however, believe it’s just a question of when – not if – it will be found here.

Outbreak widespread

CWD has been found along Colorado’s Front Range, as well as the northeastern corner of the state, as well as in Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Canada’s Saskatchewan province. The Wisconsin outbreak and that of Colorado’s Western Slope confirms that geographic barriers like the Continental Divide or Mississippi River provide no protection from the disease.

How it spontaneously appeared 120 miles from the nearest outbreak along the Front Range is a mystery.

“We’ve got a hot spot,” said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “There’s a good chance we can stop it in its tracks, but we know we’re not going to get all the infected animals.”

That hot spot is considered to be within a five-mile radius of the ranch, where CWD infected deer were discovered and killed.

“It’s a scary situation,” said Ted Archibeque, president of the Eagle County chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation. “It’s depressing. We’re facing a disease with no cure. The timing is tough because the deer populations here are just starting to come back.”

Archibeque’s concern is mirrored by Jim Gonzalez, president of the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“If CWD ever started here we would feel that impact big time. It’s a big concern right now,” said Gonzalez. “A lot of people who hunt near Craig and Meeker have already cancelled. Once it jumped over the Continental Divide all the red lights went on.”

Tough job

Slaughtering the animals is a job nobody wants. It’s hard, dirty work that has to be done, however. For wildlife officers, who spend most of their time trying to protect the animals, it is the least enjoyable aspect of their job.

“It’s not fun,” said Heicher. “You’re just killing things. Most people in wildlife management aren’t killers. They’re there to make things better. This is killing. It’s like working in a slaughterhouse.”

Heicher said the area of the hunt was steep hillsides covered with oak brush that was difficult to walk through and hunt in.

“It’s not fun or enjoyable. It’s just brutal,” he said.

Adding to the difficulty is the carcasses of the dead animals had to be retreived whole without gutting or quartering. They were tested for CWD.

An estimated 1,000 deer and elk were to be killed by the end of this week, said Malmsbury. More than 300 deer were killed within the Motherwell Ranch’s fences; the remainder were killed in areas beyond the fences.

A “war’

Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens, has declared the effort to control the disease a “war.”

The Colorado Legislature made a $1.94 million supplemental appropriation to hire 10 employees and to operate a test facility for CWD on the the Western Slope. State legislators are also pressing the federal government for assistance because the disease has now become a regional issue.

“This has the potential of becoming a serious epidemic that would have a devastating impact on the livelihood of many of our citizens,” said Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. “If we don’t spend the money now to ensure proper study and containment of this disease, we’ll end up paying much more later when the governor is forced to declare a state of emergency to deal with the problem.”

Injecting urgency into the effort is the knowledge the deer herd in the Meeker/Hayden area is about to embark on its spring migration to the High Country. Any infected animals that escape being killed during the hunt could carry the disease well beyond the initial outbreak area and could possibly infect other animals over a widespread area.

Massive culling

The new outbreak involving five deer was discovered last month between Meeker and Hayden on an 1,800 acre enclosure for captive elk. Captive elk in an adjacent ranch may be destroyed too. Carcasses of the animals will be incinerated in a portable incinerator brought to the area. During hunting season, hunters who have killed animals suspected to have the disease are cautioned not to consume any of the animals without first having them tested to determine if they are CWD-free or not.

Much of the culling, or selective killing, of deer herds has been conducted on private land with landowner permission. Malmsbury said there have been several dozen locals who have volunteered to assist.

In January and March, the DOW, ranch employees and volunteers from a variety of wildlife organizations conducted a public hunt on the ground. A helicopter hunt inside and outside of the ranch also was conducted. All in all, more than 400 animals have been killed. Another similar hunt conducted within a five mile radius of the ranch resulted in 327 more deer kills, seven within the ranch. All the animals were tested for CWD, with three positive results.

The hunt is similar to one conducted in February along the Front Range in Larimer County, where CWD has been present for more than two decades.

“We have two goals there,” Malmsbury said. “We want to prevent the spread of CWD and and the likelihood of how it is spread.”

It’s spreading

CWD is a fatal neurological disease affecting deer and elk. It’s nearly identical to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease, that resulted in the slaughter and destruction of thousand of cows in Europe and elsewhere. That CWD has spread to the Western Slope has shocked wildlife managers and put new urgency in stopping the disease before it spreads farther.

Until recently, the disease had been found mainly in the northeast portion of the state, north of Interstate 70 and east of the Continental Divide.

What it could do here

Driving the urgency to control the disease on the Western Slope is the knowledge that if CWD begins to affect wild deer and elk herds, it could negatively affect the multi-billion big-game hunting seasons in the state.

The spinoffs to local Eagle County businesses are indisputable. Hunters bring millions of dollars to the local economy during the multiple hunting seasons. A census of wildlife done in 2000 shows there are approximately 4,300 deer and 5,900 elk in Eagle County.

One economic analysis conducted more than a decade ago of what hunting and fishing is worth about $30 million annually to Eagle County’s economy.

Heicher said hunting has declined since the survey was made; fishing, however, has increased.

Paying careful attention to the CWD situation are local merchants, for whom hunting season is vital. Many won’t speak about it out of fear of scaring away hunters.

“Everyone is worried about it,” said John Prince of the Eagle Pharmacy. “I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about it.”

Statewide, consumptive hunting and fishing and non-consumptive wildlife activity, such as photography and viewing, are worth nearly $3 billion annually Malmsbury said.

Politically hot

Elk ranching can be lucrative. Elk are sold for meat; velvet antlers can be sold to buyers on the Pacific rim who; breeding bulls can be sold and hunting ranches sell rights to hunt trophy bulls for thousands of dollars. CWD has hurt the elk ranching industry because it decreases demand for elk and elk products.

The outbreak of CWD has been spotlighted by the politicization of the issue of whether the state should allow game ranching. The DOW and game ranching industry are at odds – as are the DOW and the state Department of Agriculture, which licenses game ranches.

The DOW and the agriculture department have differing responsibilities. One protects wildlife; the other regulates the agriculture industry. CWD has put them at odds because it threatens both wildlife and game ranches. The state Legislature transferred regulation of game ranches from the DOW to the Agriculture department in 1984, said Malmsbury, because of complaints that the DOW had been too tough on game ranchers.

Privately, however, many within the DOW say they feel game ranching may be responsible for spreading the disease. Of course game ranchers feel differently.

Local elk rancher Richard “Old Dog” Galloway late last year pointed the finger of blame at the DOW, saying the initial outbreak started at the agency’s Ft. Collins research facility.

He has a different take on the disease now.

“I think it has been out there in the wild for a long time,” Galloway said this week. “They just found it, but they’ve never been looking for it. They’re blaming all the elk ranchers.”

Galloway said he will keep his 65 head of elk at the Big Hat Ranch in McCoy in anticipation that he will be able to sell them after the DOW is done killing wild elk.

An area of concern for wildlife managers is the fact there is no ban on transporting ranch-raised elk, as there is on transporting wild game. That may spread the disease.

An outbreak in the San Luis Valley near Del Norte, as well as others in the state, have been linked to shipment of infected animals.

“We know this wasn’t done intentionally,” said Malmsbury.

Nevertheless the problem is a thorny one. Once the outbreaks were discovered, those captive herds were destroyed.

Prevention possible?

One non-lethal solution aimed at preventing outbreaks proposed by the DOW and the state is to double-fence ranches where captive herd of elk and deer are enclosed. Fences a yard apart would separate captive and wild animals so there would be no physical contact.

One unspoken concern in Colorado and elsewhere is whether the disease can jump species and be spread to domestic cows. Montana, with its large ranch industry, had banned game ranches.

Here, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which regulates game ranches, has not discussed banning game ranching and isn’t exactly bringing the matter to the forefront, either.

“As a regulatory agency we abide by the state statutes,” said Agriculture’s Linh Truong. “We will continue to do so until state statutes read differently.”

Outside the realm of animal culling, finger-pointing and political turf wars, research into the cause of the disease continues.

Ins and outs of CWD

– Chronic Wasting Disease affects the brains and spinal cords of elk and Mule and White Tail deer.

– The infected animals becomes listless, emaciated and eventually die from starvation.

– It is believed to be caused by a rogue protein ion and it is not known if it can be transmitted to humans if they consume the tissue of infected animals.

– How it is spread from animal to animal is not known. What is known is that it has appeared in captive animal herds.

– The first record of it in the state was in a captive DOW deer herd at a research facility outside of Ft. Collins 26 years ago.

– Since then it has been found in and around several captive elk herds around the state, and more rarely in wild herds, but it does appear where there is a massing of herds.

– Mad cow disease, by comparison, appears in humans as Creutzfeld-Jacob’s disease and presents symptoms in humans similar to what appears in the affected animals.

– Cliff Thompson

CWD symposium in Denver

A symposium on Chronic Wasting Disease will be held in Denver at the Doubletree Hotel on Quebec Street, Aug. 6 and 7.

It will be sponsored by the Mule Deer Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Boone and Crockett Club. The propose of the meeting is to share information from experts on CWD.

For more information call Rick Kahn at the Colorado Division of Wildlife at 970-472-4342.


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