Hunters part of wasting disease monitoring |

Hunters part of wasting disease monitoring

Cliff Thompson

Chronic wasting disease, CWD, is threatening the state’s $599 million dollar-a-year hunting industry. Hunters will help participate in monitoring the spread of the disease.

This mysterious and fatal neurological disorder is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by a rogue protein ion, or prion, that creates symptoms similar to Mad Cow Disease.

Animals that contract it become lethargic, uncoordinated, emaciated and often drool or slobber profusely.

Hunters are being asked to help monitor the spread of this disease, which so far, has not been transmitted to humans. A related disease, Creutzfeld Jacob’s Disease, has appeared in humans eating animal tissue infected with Mad Cow Disease.

The Division of Wildlife has been spreading word of the monitoring effort to hunters when they purchase a license and through its website.

What it means for hunters like veterinarian Dr. Steve Conlin of Castle Peak Veterinary is the need to be more cautious and observant.

He’s planning on hunting in the final rifle season in November.

“People shouldn’t freak out,” he said. “It won’t stop me from hunting, but I will take precautions.”

Those include wearing gloves when field dressing an animal and avoiding lymph nodes, spinal cord, and brain tissues, where prions are known to accumulate. He’ll also make sure if he kills an animal that he has the animal tested for CWD.

Hunters, too, need to know their quarry. If an animal appears skinny or is lethargic or acting strangely it could have the disease. But the lethargy and emaciation only appear in latter stages of the disease.

Conlin is one of 232 veterinarians statewide volunteering to help the Division of Wildlife monitor the spread of the disease that this year was discovered for the first time in three Western Slope counties. It had been prevalent in Larimer and Boulder Counties, but an outbreak of the disease was found near Hayden in Routt County southwest of Steamboat Springs last spring and infected animals have been found in Summit and Mesa counties. It also has been found in nine states and several Canadian provinces.

Interestingly enough, a growing elk population has resulted in an increase in the number of licenses issued for Eagle County’s eight hunting areas. More hunting licenses have been issued for the county this year than in the past four years, said the Bill Heicher of the Division of Wildlife. Nearly 400,000 deer and elk hunters are expected to hunt in Colorado this year, according to Division of Wildlife statistics.

Keep your head

To determine if game is infected, hunters may bring a deer or elk head, with approximately one-third of the neck attached, to sampling locations, soon after killing the animal.

There a portion of the animal’s brain stem and lymph nodes will be taken and an ELISA or enzyme-linked immunio sorbent assay will be made. The results will be available typically within two weeks. The cost to have veterinarian Conlin do it is $47 while the Division of Wildlife will charge $17. Results of will be made available on the Division’s website:

If a hunter bags an infected animal, the Division of Wildlife will notify the hunter immediately and will refund license fees and any meat processing costs animal, Heicher said.

Animal heads need to be kept cool, but not frozen so proper samples can be taken. Conlin recommends putting them in a cooler filled with ice.

“We don’t know a lot about CWD,” said Conlin. Prions are remarkably resilient, he said. Cooking doesn’t destroy them and they have been known to exist in soil for several years, bringing up the possibility they can reinfect animals. Only an incinerator that heats things to 1,200 degrees or higher destroys them, Conlin said.


Chronic Wasting Disease has become a heated political issue since it was first identified in a captive elk herd at a Division of Wildlife animal research facility near Ft. Collins in 1976. It was later found in area wild deer and elk herds.

Last year it was discovered in several elk ranching operations causing the state Department of Agriculture and the Division of Wildlife to impose a quarantine on elk ranching operation. Several infected herds were destroyed, as a means of slowing spread of the disease. That quarantine was eventually lifted, but it heavily impacted the state’s multi-million dollar elk ranching industry.

Elk are sold for breeding, antlers, meat and also for controlled trophy shooting

Nearly 16,000 captive elk were kept on 160 ranches in Colorado.

Last spring an outbreak of the disease was found in wild deer and elk near an elk ranch in Routt County. Division of Wildlife personnekilled several hundred to try and slow the spread of the disease.

Western Slope

Last month an infected bull elk was killed on the eastern flanks of the Gore Range in Summit County and an infected deer was killed near Colbran in Mesa County. So far, no infected animals have been found in Eagle County, but wildlife officials said it is not of question of if it will appear, but when.

Controlling the spread of the disease may prove impossible, said Heicher.

“The difficulty is compounded because of the migratory nature of the animals,” he said “They can travel 50 or 60 miles and interact with hundreds or perhaps thousand of other animals.”

Controlling the rate of spread of the disease by culling suspected animal herds seems to be the only option, wildlife officials said.

Just how the disease spreads, remains a mystery, said Division biologist Van Graham. He said it is theorized that muzzle to muzzle contact between animals may be one way it spreads.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of suspicions and a lot of research being done,” he said.

Heicher said if there’s a heavy winter this year it could concentrate animals, increasing their contact and the chance the disease could spread.

A heavy winter following the parched growing season may cause significant mortality in Eagle County’s deer population, that has begun to rebound from low numbers.

“We’re worried about a hard winter on top of a poor growing season,” said Heicher. “there aren’t a lot of groceries out there.”

Slowing the spread of the disease is crucial to buying time for researchers to discover how it is spread.

Division of Wildlife computer modeling of the disease, if unchecked, has shown it will wipe out deer and elk populations within decades.

Elk were nearly wiped out by hunters in Colorado. In 1913 a herd was reintroduced to Rocky Mountain National Park area. Ninety years later the elk populations continues to grow with 300,000 animals.

The state’s largest elk herd is found in the sprawling multi-county Flat Tops that buttress Eagle County’s northwestern border.

There are approximately 160,000 mule deer and several thousand white-tailed deer in the state.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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