Wildlife officials to step up CWD testing this year
As the heart of the deer and elk hunting season approaches, Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) officials are once again trying to make sure hunters understand the importance of the agency’s chronic wasting disease testing program. Last year, hunters killed about 95,000 animals and submitted about 26,000 for testing, enabling researchers to start tracking the spread and prevalence of the brain-wasting malady across the state. The first rifle season opens Oct. 13.Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is thought to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion that attacks the brains of infected animals, emaciating and killing them. It belongs to family of diseases collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, that can also affect domestic cattle. Researchers have found no links between CWD and neurological diseases that affect humans. But some officials and scientists still urge caution, based on the similarities between CWD and other fatal prion ailments like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).Along with any potential human health risks, CWD is of concern because of its potential to affect deer and elk herds. According to a panel of experts that last year evaluated Colorado’s CWD research and management efforts, uncertainties associated with the disease "considerably diminish the perceived social and economic value of the wildlife resource."So far, Eagle County appears to be mostly free of CWD, based on last year’s test results. According to Bill Andree, Colorado Division of Wildlife manager for the area, only one elk, shot near the Eagle-Summit County line, tested positive for the disease."We’re still encouraging testing," Andree says. "It’s the only way to know over time where the disease is," he adds, comparing the CWD tests to the method used to pinpoint cases of West Nile virus.CDOW officials say that, over time, the CWD monitoring will enable the agency to identify disease hot spots and potentially slow the spread of the disease by culling infected animals.Hunting season is an annual boon to the economy of many West Slope towns, bringing a significant influx of cash. So far, the disease does not appear to have had much of an impact on the number of hunters in Colorado, CDOW officials say. But some area business owners are concerned that too much media coverage is having an impact on business. Overplaying the threat of the disease could be scaring away potential customers, says Dan Murphy, owner of Fishin’ Hole Sporting Goods in Kremmling."I talked to a number of hunters last year who don’t think it’s a real strong threat since it’s not showing up in the blood or the meat," says Tom Kroening, CDOW’s Summit County manager. Some hunters have changed the way they process their kills, avoiding contact with the brain and spinal cord to avoid potential contamination, Kroening says.CDOW has reduced the price of testing from $17 to $15. In case of a positive result, the agency will reimburse hunters for the cost of butchering. New hand-held data devices will enable wildlife officials to process CWD-related information more quickly, and the agency is still planning on turning all test results around within a week to two weeks at the most.
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