State gets bad news that wasting disease found in wild herd across the divide

April 10, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Gary Gerhardt and 
Todd Hartman
The worst fears of wildlife officials were realized Monday when two wild deer outside the fences of a Western Slope elk ranch tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Gov. Bill Owens said Tuesday the deer were shot by state Division of Wildlife employees within a mile of the Motherwell Ranch south of Craig, where two other mule deer inside the property were discovered with CWD last week.

The discovery means the disease is officially present in the wilds west of the Continental Divide - a confirmation stirring concern in the hunting-driven economies of northwestern Colorado's small towns.

"I hate to see it come to this part of the world," said Gary Troester, a taxidermist in Steamboat Springs who fears he'll be mounting fewer deer and elk heads in the coming year. "Everybody's concerned." Owens put some perspective on the finding but didn't try to downplay its significance.

"It wasn't the zero percent we hoped for, but we're thankful it's only two deer and not 30 or 40, which might put all the deer in that area at risk," Owens said. "We're going to continue with aggressive steps to stem this disease."

Owens delivered the news at a news conference in Denver before flying to the Hayden airport to discuss the problem with a gathering of Western Slope business and political leaders.

State Division of Wildlife director Russell George said division employees killed 311 deer in a 5-mile radius of the ranch last week and two tested positive for CWD.

Prior to Monday's discovery, none of the hundreds of animals killed by hunters in the region had been found with the disease.

George and Owens flew into Rangely for a similar meeting after the Hayden stop, accompanied by Department of Natural Resources chief Greg Walcher and Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament.

"We all have a huge stake in it. Hunting is part of our lives as well as our economy," said Forest Nelson, a Meeker-area rancher and Rio Blanco County commissioner.

Nelson said sympathy is running high for the DOW game wardens.

"They had a tough job. They try to save the herd and then had to kill them. There were tears in their eyes," he said.

Chronic wasting disease is a contagious malady caused by a rogue protein that attacks the brain of elk and deer and kills them.

CWD is related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease, but it isn't known if it can spread from deer and elk to cattle or people.

The only way to find the disease is to kill the animal for testing.

CWD has been in northeastern Colorado for more than 30 years, but it had been hoped the mountains would act as a barrier, preventing the disease from migrating to the state's prime deer and elk herds on the Western Slope.

Deer and elk hunting in Colorado pumps between $1 billion and $2 billion into the state's economy and fuels most of the Wildlife Division's programs.

"Hunting in many small communities on the Western Slope is as important to their economies as skiing is in mountain communities," Owens said.

Business interests aren't the only concern, said Kevin LeFevre, manager of the Meeker Hotel and Cafe and a frequent hunter: Deer and elk meat "is pretty much a staple in the diet out here," he said.

LeFevre said a single cow elk can provide his family nearly enough meat for a year.

Tom Schilling, a spokesman for the Colorado Elk Breeders Association, said the industry takes no joy in the disease's presence in the wild, even though the finding could take some heat off the owner of a captive elk herd nearby. Some have suggested the herd could prove to be the source of the disease on the Western Slope.

"Whether it's inside or outside the fence, we think CWD has got to be contained," Schilling said. "We support the governor's no-nonsense approach."

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