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
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) ) 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