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Wasting disease on Western Slope

March 30, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
The discovery of a wild deer carrying chronic wasting disease on the Western Slope sent shock waves through state government Friday, prompting Gov. Bill Owens to warn of dire consequences for Colorado's economy and its wildlife.

Until now, the deadly illness appeared confined to northeastern Colorado, where fewer animals and fewer hunters kept the problem at a manageable level. With the new finding, officials fear the Western Slope's hunting-dependent economy could collapse under the weight of CWD concerns.

They also worry that the disease will spread more rapidly through the region's denser herds of deer and elk

"This is potentially a very serious problem for Colorado," Owens said. "Until now, one of our best weapons for containing the disease was the Continental Divide. Now that barrier has been broken." The disease was detected in a wild mule deer that somehow entered - or was enclosed by - a newly constructed 1,800-acre captive elk ranch near Craig, in northwest Colorado. A hunter killed the animal in recent months. Test results showing infection came back Friday.

Brain tissues of two more wild deer killed within the elk ranch appear "suspicious" for CWD, and further testing will reveal with certainty whether they, too, were carrying the disease.

Russell George, director of Colorado's Division of Wildlife, called the news "disturbing" and said wildlife workers would begin Monday shooting at least 300 deer - and perhaps as many as 1,000 - and 30 elk within a five-mile radius of the facility. Biologists want to determine whether the disease has taken hold outside the enclosure, and if so, to what degree.

Owens said Colorado, with so much at stake, would attack the disease and err on the side of doing too much, rather than too little. "The most aggressive policy is the policy we're going to follow," he said.

The urgency of the situation was clear when Owens and three of his top officials - the head the Department Natural Resources, the Commissioner of Agriculture and the Division of Wildlife chief - gathered for a late-afternoon press conference on Good Friday, when the Capitol had largely emptied.

Owens warned that the crisis could cost the state's economy millions of dollars if hunters stay away, hotel occupancy falls, ammo shops suffer and restaurants see business slide.

He noted that the state Division of Wildlife - which depends almost completely on license fees for its revenues - could see revenues plunge. And he fretted that Colorado's image could take a major blow.

"Colorado is a very special place because of our wildlife," Owens said. "Colorado without deer and elk would be a very different place."

Chronic wasting disease is a cousin of mad cow disease, a killer syndrome that is responsible for more than 120 human deaths in England and Europe. So far, however, there is no proof CWD can infect humans that consume an infected animal. Scientists, however, continue to research the matter.

"In terms of crossing over into our food chain, I think the experts have told me there's little reason to be concerned," Owens said.

Regulators at the Department of Agriculture were poring over records Friday related to the new elk ranch, where the infected deer was found. The facility, called the Mother Well Ranch, was licensed in September of 2000, but wasn't stocked until last July.

Also Friday, the state veterinarian quarantined all 103 elk on the ranch. Because there is no live-animal CWD test for elk, all of them must be killed in case any are infected.

Where all the elk came from, and whether some of them have been sold off since the ranch opened wasn't immediately clear. In recent years, movement of infected elk between ranches has spread the disease, but no one was producing evidence to indicate that happened in this case.

The elk-ranching industry, highly criticized in recent months for its role in the CWD crisis, asserted Friday that the disease was picked up in the wild, insisting that the Western Slope captive elk herd was disease-free.

"Research shows that CWD takes much longer than six months to incubate - and the elk have only been on this property six months," said Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association. "Clearly, the CWD infection existed prior to the introduction of the elk."

The Division of Wildlife, however, was unhappy because at least 281 wild deer and 43 wild elk were entrapped in the facility when the fences went up last summer. Agency rules require those animals to be cleared out before stocked elk are moved in.

"(The operator) had a license from state Agriculture and it was his right to build the fence," George said. "We tried to work with him, giving him licenses and even trying to shoot wild animals that he entrapped. We asked him not to build all of the fence so we could try to drive some of the animals out, but he did it anyway."

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