March 29, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)Gov. Bill Owens hardly overstated the case when he told Boulder County commissioners that chronic wasting disease "has the potential to eliminate deer and elk from the state within the next half-century."
The governor asked the commissioners to reconsider their March 12 vote limiting how and where the Division of Wildlife could cull deer in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. We hope they agree. Boulder County has a lot of deer in this fight. In one recent test in the northern part of the country, three of 12 animals tested had the deadly infection. The commissioners voted 2-1 to allow the division to dart and trap deer in that area (and then to euthanize them), but not to shoot them.
County Commissioner Ron Stewart has written that division officials testified that darting and trapping would be adequate, and that he might have decided differently if he'd been told more emphatically that shooting the deer was essential.
But Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller says there was nothing in the testimony that altered the division's recommendations. "We laid out as necessary what we believed was necessary," he said, though they'd do the best they could with the tools the commissioners allowed them. As he told News reporter Todd Hartman after the hearing, trapping and darting was less effective and efficient than shooting, but, "it's better than nothing."
What's appropriate in a particular situation depends on many factors, including the size of the herd, the infection rate, the terrain, the season and probably many other things that wildlife experts would consider. So the larger point is that elected officials would be wise to make the broad policy decisions and leave the time-place-and-manner decisions to specialists.
But it's still important that they get the policy right. In the other part of their decision, they refused the division permission to take any deer at all on county land in the southern part of the county, where the disease prevalence is low.
That southern part, Stewart wrote, "has plenty of private and National Forest Service land where CDOW can continue its mission of killing deer."
But the proper question, surely, is not who owns the land; it's whether the deer on it are sick. Jeff VerSteeg, terrestrial wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife, explained Saturday in the News that its strategy where the rate of disease is low is to remove specific small herds of deer where diseased animals have already been found.
If some of those herds prove to be on Boulder County land, and they remain there, they could potentially infect herds in a wide surrounding area. It's true we don't know precisely how the disease is spread, but that it is contagious is clear. In some 8 percent of the state it is already considered endemic, with at least 5 percent of animals infected, and from 10 to 15 percent in some areas along the northern Front Range.
Colorado can't put off doing what scientists believe is most likely to slow the epidemic until every scientific question has been answered in detail. Coloradans treasure the sight of deer gliding through the woods or elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park. Tourism and hunting are important to the state's economy, too. Do we want to wait until the last animal has staggered off to die?