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Dead buck gives rise to new fears that disease heading South

June 5, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
A deer found dead in Jefferson County has tested positive for chronic wasting disease, pushing the fatal wildlife illness to its farthest point south and moving it deeper into the metro area.

The discovery validates long-held concerns that CWD could push out from its endemic area of northeastern Colorado and move easily through more concentrated herds along the Front Range.

A landowner west of Highway 93, near Leyden, found the deer dead on his property last winter, then submitted the head to state wildlife officials for CWD testing. Laboratory backlogs prevented the animal's brain tissue from analysis until recently. "This underscores that . . . no part of our state is apparently immune from chronic wasting disease," Gov. Bill Owens said. "All levels of government must work together to stem the spread of this disease."

Also Tuesday, the Colorado Division of Wildlife said three road-kill deer found in southwestern Boulder tested positive for the disease. That, along with an earlier discovery of an infected deer in the area, brings the total CWD-positive animals in that locale to four out of about 40 sampled, or 10 percent, said Todd Malmsbury, the Division spokesman.

"This situation in southwestern Boulder could turn out to be very serious," said Division veterinarian Mike Miller in a prepared statement. "There's a high density of deer in the area that display very localized movement patterns. This could produce high rates of infection."

A disease of deer and elk festering for decades in a swath of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, CWD is now killing wild herds in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin, as well as the province of Saskatchewan.

Though not known to infect humans, it is a cousin of mad cow disease, which has killed more than 120 people in England and Europe, and scientists continue to study its potential to harm cattle and people.

Owens has appointed a chronic wasting disease task force, which meets today in Fort Collins to discuss the latest findings, and what to do about it.

Division officials believe the dead Jefferson County animal, a mule deer buck, probably died of the CWD. Analysis of the brain indicated the deer was in the latter stages of the sickness that eats away at the brain, causing animals to stagger and starve.

"This thing fell dead in his yard," said Jeff Ver Steeg, terrestrial section manager for the Division. Such findings of CWD-felled deer or elk are rare, Ver Steeg said, because scavengers usually tear through carcasses within hours.

The property owner, a hunter, notified the division, removed the head and provided it to state biologists, Ver Steeg said. "He really did us a huge favor."

Boulder County was previously believed to be the southernmost extension of the disease. In March, Owens urged Boulder County commissioners to reverse a policy limiting division biologists to trapping and darting - but not shooting - deer on county lands to contain the disease.

At the time, state scientists warned commissioners the disease threatened to move south of Boulder if they couldn't act aggressively to stop it. Commissioners later relented. Now, the disease has moved south anyway, into the second most populated county in Colorado, with more than 527,000 residents.

That includes tens of thousands in the county's forested foothills, where many homeowners enjoy sharing space with plentiful deer. Now, division sharpshooters may ask some of those residents to let them kill some of the animals to sample for CWD.

"It's certainly very likely we're going to have to cull animals out there," Malmsbury said. It's also likely the division will increase surveillance, including possibly shooting, in southwestern Boulder, he said.

The infected Jefferson County deer was found in an area where the deer herd is estimated at 7,000 to 7,800, the Division said. That herd straddles two so-called "game management units" that cover northern Jefferson and southern Boulder counties.

Jefferson County officials said they didn't find out about the case until late Tuesday and were making plans to meet with the Division of Wildlife.

Jefferson County spokesman John Masson said commissioners, based on a straw vote several weeks ago during the Boulder County controversy, are likely to give the agency the green light to shoot deer on county-owned lands.

"They decided they would be very cooperative," Masson said.

What's not clear is whether the Jefferson County finding means local deer are infected, or whether this deer may have moved south from infected herds in Boulder County, Malmsbury said.

On the downside, if other nearby deer are infected, the delay in testing means the disease has had more than six months to spread without notice.

Malmsbury said the delay in testing was due to shifting testing priorities, including the discovery of chronic wasting disease on Colorado's Western Slope in March.

"Everything got pushed back when we found animals (out there)," he said. "We continue to have a backlog of animals to test" but he said laboratory workers have gone through most of the samples by now.

Delays are also related to equipment problems at various laboratories, he said.

"It's really been a problem," Malmsbury said.

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