CWD outbreak is nation's worst Colo. scrambles to stop brain-malady's spread

October 14, 2001 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Years after state wildlife biologists warned that lax regulation could allow chronic wasting disease to spread through ranched elk herds, Colorado has been caught dead center in the largest outbreak of the disease in the United States.

While agriculture officials last week began marking 148 elk in ranches all over the state for slaughter and testing, wildlife officers shot 30 wild deer that may have mingled with CWD-exposed elk inside a private shooting park in Cowdrey to try and prevent them from carrying the infection to previously unexposed wild herds.

And with the number of Colorado ranched elk destined for testing now more than 1,500, the outbreak is starting to look like one in Saskatchewan, where provincial officials reacted to a long-smoldering epidemic by ordering 6,300 elk slaughtered during the past 18 months. It was an enormous blow to the elk industry, but it came too late to prevent the spread of the fatal brain wasting disease to two wild mule deer living near the infected game farms. 'What happened in Saskatchewan is what we're trying to avoid,' said state veterinarian Dr. Wayne Cunningham.

That's why Division of Wildlife biologists were so quick to kill wild deer and elk that had somehow gotten inside a several-hundred-acre enclosure at Trophy Mountain Elk Ranch in Cowdrey, a small North Park community near a major game migration route. A smaller number of wild game animals were also shot near an infected elk ranch in the San Luis Valley town of Del Norte.

Biologists are hopeful there are no signs of the disease's infectious prion protein in the brains of those wild deer. If there is, wildlife officers intend to kill more deer outside the fence to try to prevent them from carrying it further, agency spokesman Todd Malmsbury said.

Hunters working the North Park and San Luis Valley will also be asked to turn in the heads of deer and elk from those areas for testing, Malmsbury said.

Biologists are crossing their fingers that none of the elk bought by the Western Slope breeders from an infected Stoneham elk ranch tests positive for the disease. Otherwise, similar wild deer control programs might be required in places such as Craig, Fruita and Pagosa Springs.

But as the Division of Wildlife scrambles to contain the infection, they've come under fire from elk ranchers, who say infected wild animals are the ultimate source of their problem.

Chronic wasting disease was first identified in 1967 in deer being used in a deer nutrition experiment at a Division of Wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, though biologists later found game herds across a 15,000-square-mile area straddling the Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska borders also were infected. Based on the pattern of infection, researchers believe the disease, a relative of the sheep disease scrapie, first appeared in Wyoming.

But because CWD was first identified in Fort Collins, many people assume it started there. And the fact that the research pens were run by the Division of Wildlife - an agency viewed as hostile to game farming because of disease concerns - has convinced many elk breeders that the wildlife agency created the disease, perhaps by feeding them diseased sheep.

Others allege the DOW gave away elk and deer the agency knew were infected, a claim wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller flatly denies.

Miller says the agency may indeed have given some wild deer from the Fort Collins research station to places like the Denver Zoo. But it was before the malady was recognized as a transmissible brain wasting disease. He and other researchers are certain CWD was present in the wild before its appearance at the research station.

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