Special hunts set to help control disease

December 13, 2001 Scripps-McClatchy Western Service by Ed Engle
The number of news releases issued by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) about chronic wasting disease has been on the increase this fall. You should have gotten the word by now, but if you haven't, chronic wasting disease is a degenerative neurological disease of deer and elk. It attacks the brain of the infected animal. Deer or elk infected with chronic wasting disease often look emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose control of bodily functions and die.

Chronic wasting disease is endemic in 13 game management units in northeastern Colorado. On the average about five percent of the deer and less than one percent of the elk in the endemic areas have the disease. The three major herds of animals in the endemic area occur along the South Platte River; north and northeast of Fort Collins; and closer to home, in the Lyons, Loveland and Estes Park areas. Until recently most of what we've been hearing about chronic wasting disease is spin on the fact that epidemiologists with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have found no link between chronic wasting disease and "any human neurological disorders," which is another way of saying chronic wasting disease is not mad cow disease.

Nonetheless, state health officials and the DOW have advised hunters to follow simple precautions when handling deer or elk in the endemic area and not to eat animals that appear sick or test positive for the disease.

Most recently the DOW has proposed to manage the endemic area with an emphasis toward disease control. What the plan boils down to is reducing the size of the herds in the affected areas. DOW game managers believe that a reduced population density in the endemic area should result in a reduction in chronic wasting disease. And if the prevalence of chronic wasting disease is reduced it's less likely to spread.

At this time, the DOW hasn't found any chronic wasting disease in free-ranging animals in a test of 2,000 deer and elk outside of the endemic area and they hope to keep it that way. The goal of the proposed management plan is to reduce chronic wasting disease to one percent or less in endemic-area deer and elk and to prevent the spread of the disease to uninfected areas. Public hunting will be used wherever possible to reduce and maintain the herds, but the DOW will probably have to cull animals in some areas to reach population objectives.

With that in mind the DOW announced a series of special anterless deer hunts west of Fort Collins to take place Dec. 15-28, Dec. 29-Jan. 11, and Jan. 12-25. Licenses went on sale Dec. 10 at the DOW's Fort Collins' office. The special season licenses are considered additional in nature, which means a hunter who previously purchased a deer license this season is allowed to purchase and possess the limited license for the special hunts. Cost of the licenses and regulations are the same as those during the regular rifle season.

Hunters who kill a deer during the special season will be required to submit the head of the animal for chronic wasting disease testing.

In addition to herd culling activities, the DOW adopted emergency regulations on Oct. 18 designed to reduce the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease by limiting the movement of live deer and elk inside Colorado, except for scientific or wildlife management purposes, and only if specifically approved by the DOW director.

Another special regulation requires that deer and elk in captive facilities may not be imported to Colorado from other states unless the animals have been certified free from disease for at least 36 months through a disease surveillance program.

The emergency regulations were adapted because of concerns raised by the movement of elk infected with chronic wasting disease from a captive facility in northeastern Colorado to game ranches near Del Norte in the San Luis Valley and near Cowdry in North Park. Elk with chronic wasting disease have been found at both of these game ranches.

All of this is strangely reminiscent of the way things started when whirling disease was discovered in Colorado's trout. Everyone agrees that something must be done and we all hope that enough is done soon enough to protect Colorado's deer and elk.

I would suggest that if the point of the special hunts is really to cull the herds in the endemic areas, give the licenses to hunters who are interested in participating. Why charge standard big game in-state and out-of-state hunting fees if the point of the hunts are indeed disease control? Let's forget about the money and get the job done. If too few hunters buy licenses we'll just have to pay DOW employees to cull the animals, anyway.

I also believe that the DOW should strongly recommend that hunters take the necessary precautions when field dressing animals and that none of the animals harvested be eaten until the hunter receives word directly from the DOW that his/her deer has tested negative for chronic wasting disease.

The DOW has made the right choice to act decisively in reducing the herds in the endemic area. It is important to inform the hunters and the public at large that there is no evidence at all at this time to indicate that chronic wasting disease poses a threat to public health. But it is also wise to let people know that we don't know everything about chronic wasting disease. It will pay us all to stay alert, keep informed and follow game handling recommendations where necessary.

(Contact Ed Engle of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at http://www.bouldernews.com.)

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