Plan to kill deer, elk assailed; shooting herds isn't a magic bullet against disease, activists say

February 15, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
Colorado's efforts to combat chronic wasting disease are under fire from animal-welfare groups concerned about the emphasis on shooting deer and elk in the wild to contain the sickness.

While acknowledging the fatal disease's potential to spread, critics - including Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, Humane Society and Animal Law Center - suggest there's not enough evidence showing CWD is a crisis in the wild.

"Based on the dearth of scientific information . . . there is no biological, ecological or ethical justification for the Colorado Division of Wildlife's proposal (to reduce the number of animals)," Wyoming-based Andrea Lococo of the Fund for Animals wrote to state officials.

One plan drawing fire calls for killing more than a thousand deer in a management area covering parts of Boulder and Larimer counties. By doing so, state wildlife managers believe, they can keep the disease contained to less than 1 percent of the animals in affected areas. This won't be the first time state biologists have shot wild deer in an effort to rein in the disease. Last April, workers shot some 300 deer in an area along the Colorado-Wyoming border. In addition, wildlife officials have allowed special hunting seasons in recent years to cull the herd and test how many animals are carrying CWD.

Colorado wildlife managers have tracked CWD since 1981, but it gained only limited publicity until recently, after a related illness - mad cow disease - proliferated in England. So far, there is no evidence CWD can be transmitted to humans.

Now, the issue is drawing attention from animal welfare activists worried that overzealous wildlife officials needlessly will kill thousands of healthy animals to stop the small percentage carrying the disease. Their opposition centers on several assertions, including:

The disease may be a natural, limiting factor for wildlife, and probably has been present for decades or longer. There's no proof it's an exotic, non-native pathogen.

The disease hasn't spread beyond its endemic area in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. Wild cases outside of the endemic area, in northwestern Nebraska, may be the result of the disease emanating from captive herds.

Research yet has to demonstrate a link between reducing wild populations and a drop in the percentage of wild animals carrying the disease.

Aggressive culling could push deer outside the endemic area and actually boost the chances the disease will spread. Critics cite examples in which they say animals have changed their movements in response to hunting pressures.

Political pressure is coming from hunters who want the disease stopped - and whose license fees fund much of state wildlife agency - and from elk breeders and cattle ranchers who fear for the health of their captive herds is driving the Division to move too quickly.

"When you look at all of these things, it doesn't give you a lot of confidence they know what they're doing," said Marcia Barber, a resident in the Sugarloaf area west of Boulder who is opposed to state biologists' plan to reduce deer numbers there.

But wildlife managers take issue with the critics. They say they get no joy out of shooting the animals but that they have to err on the side of caution to contain a disease scientists still know little about. The potential consequences of doing nothing are severe, they say.

"Modeling efforts suggest that left unmanaged, CWD could potentially devastate infected herds and spread to neighboring states," according to a Division of Wildlife deer management plan.

Rick Kahn, the Division's wildlife management supervisor, said just as many, if not more critics will argue the current culling proposals aren't aggressive enough.

The debate will get a full airing Thursday and next Friday, when the Colorado Wildlife Commission will hear presentations from Division staffers on plans to contain CWD in three herds in infected areas of northeastern Colorado. Each plan calls for culling deer.

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