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Values awry on CWD control

April 2, 2002 Denver Post by Penelope Purdy
Tuesday, April 02, 2002 - There's something magical about wild animals in their natural settings. Few creatures are more majestic than elk, and few more beloved than deer. Yet both elk and deer are under siege from a strange, brain-destroying ailment called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. The politics behind the CWD epidemic show how Colorado's anti-conservation politicians put special interests ahead of this state's long-term needs. CWD, caused by a mutant form of a natural brain protein that eats holes in animals' brains, probably has been around for about 40 years, but was positively identified only about a decade ago. For many years, it was thought to be confined to an area from Fort Collins to Wheatland, Wyo. It was spreading, but very slowly, along areas adjacent to, and northeast of, the endemic region. There's no evidence that CWD can infect people. In fact, it doesn't even seem to spread to natural predators such as cougars or coyotes. But after quietly stewing for decades, in the past couple of years CWD suddenly seemed to leapfrog across the continent and even the Pacific. Most recently, it was found to have crossed the Continental Divide and now threatens wild herds on Colorado's Western Slope. Today, the core dispute is if the epidemic was caused by the Colorado Division of Wildlife's inaction over the past many years or by the sale and transport of domestic elk and deer in and out of Colorado in recent years. The evidence points strongly toward domestic elk and deer ranches. In the early 1990s, deer and elk ranchers complained to the state legislature that the Colorado Division of Wildlife was keeping such tight control over them that they felt the division was outright hostile to their industry. The complaints arose against a backdrop of animosity the legislature repeatedly displayed toward the Division of Wildlife during the 1990s. Agriculture interests historically have held sway in the legislature, often opposing more money or clout for wildlife managers. Interestingly, ranchers and farmers themselves weren't hostile to wildlife - in fact, many of them work to enhance wildlife habitat and in some lean years earn considerable extra cash from hunting and fishing rights. It's the politicians who purport to represent ag who have been wildlife's foes. That sorry attitude began to soften only in the last couple of years. And why did wildlife experts want to keep tight control over the domestic deer and elk ranches? Because when wild animals are penned closely together, the risks that infectious diseases will spread increase dramatically. Among the ailments that wildlife biologists said could travel back and forth among densely confined domestic deer and elk and their wild kin: Brucellosis. Tuberculosis. And CWD. But gee, what did the wildlife managers know? They're only a bunch of scientific experts who have spent their professional lives studying wildlife diseases. Despite repeated warnings not to do so, the legislature in 1994 stripped the Division of Wildlife of most of its powers over domestic elk ranches. Three years later, it did the same with deer ranches. Instead, the duties were given to the Department of Agriculture. Said one keen observer at the time: "The Division of Wildlife is concerned with the welfare of our wild ungulates (deer and elk). The agricultural department is concerned with ranchers making a profit." Among the captive game ranchers' biggest champions: Then-state senator Don Ament - who is now Colorado's agriculture commissioner. So the fellow who was deer and elk ranchers' best friend became the person responsible for making sure they played by the rules. Now he's on the hot seat for controlling the epidemic, which threatens to spiral out of control. In the last three years, CWD has exploded out of its endemic area and now infects elk and deer from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan and from Wisconsin to South Korea. During the same time frame, Colorado had begun permitting the transport and sale of domestic deer and elk over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles. Coincidence? Biologists think not. There is no natural explanation for an infectious disease jumping hundreds of miles. The infected animals likely could have gone so far afield only if they were transported by people. The new outbreaks have been centered in five geographic areas. Three were found next to game farms known to harbor CWD. In the remaining cases - in Sioux County, Neb., and near Craig - the infected deer have been found inside pens designed to enclose captive elk for hunters. Yet as late as January, the state Agriculture Department let game ranches import more captive elk into the state without consulting the Division of Wildlife. In one case, the ag department even let a ranch known to have had a CWD outbreak bring more animals into its property. CWD doesn't naturally spread to cattle, but did in one artificial experiment: Researchers injected brain material from a dead, infected elk into the brain of a cow, and the cow got CWD. Cattle ranchers fear that someday, somehow, CWD might harm their herds. Colorado's 15,000 beef ranches generate over $2.3 billion yearly. Meanwhile, hunting, primarily elk hunting, brings Colorado about $1.7 billion a year. Wildlife watching, especially people gawking at elk and deer, adds another $1.3 billion. That makes wildlife a $3 billion industry for our state. Yet Colorado's 160 domestic elk and deer ranches are, at most, a $44 million a year industry. So to coddle a $44 million specialty business, legislators potentially jeopardized two economic engines worth more than $5 billion to Colorado. What business book did these guys read? ---------------------------------------------------- Penelope Purdy (ppurdy@denverpost.com) ) is a member of The Denver Post editorial board and the recipient of The Wilderness Society's national Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing for 2001.

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