Ill deer: out of dying plan, into the pyre?

Ill deer: out of dying plan, into the pyre?

March 15, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
Grappling with fears that chronic wasting disease is a growing threat, some Colorado Wildlife commissioners Thursday urged burning - not burying - the carcasses of thousands of deer to be culled in the wild.

State biologists have typically hauled truckloads of deer killed in northeastern Colorado's endemic area to landfills. But commissioners challenged that approach, citing the risk posed by infectious agents that may persist in the soil. "I can't see how this is going to cure anything," said Commissioner Robert Shoemaker, a Fremont County rancher who was stunned to discover that testing laboratories are burying deer and elk heads submitted for CWD sampling.

The controversy over carcass disposal headlined a gathering when commissioners sent clear signs of escalating concern about a deadly disease now confirmed to exist in Colorado's signature landscape: Rocky Mountain National Park, and already confirmed in the wilds of Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

"I don't think we're getting done what we need to get done," Shoemaker said, also fearing the disease will spread to the hunting-rich Western Slope. "We either stop the . . . stuff or you pretty much have to let it go - it seems like we're halfway in between."

Even the chief of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, Greg Walcher - a nonvoting commissioner member - weighed in, wondering whether hunters should be making any contact with the brains of deer or elk when handling the animals, skulls and antlers.

"Seems like the last thing I would want to do," Walcher said.

Frustrated commissioners and staffers also lashed out at Boulder County commissioners, who put constraints Wednesday on the Division of Wildlife's ability to cull deer in the disease's southernmost fringe, sparking concerns the disease may move south.

"The decision of the Boulder County Commission is a real bummer for me," said commission Chairman Rick Enstrom.

Whether to burn dead deer from the endemic area sparked the most debate. Division staffers said they believed taking the heads and carcasses to regulated, fenced-off landfills - a method that's had the blessing of local health officials - is safe.

But commissioners cited pens in Fort Collins where infected animals were removed for several years and the soil disinfected. New animals were put into the pens, then became infected with CWD.

"If land after three years of nonuse" can still hold the disease, "it just makes sense to me that dumping (animals) in the landfill carries a high risk of contamination," said Olive Valdez, a commissioner representing the San Luis Valley.

Burial opponents pointed out that the Department of Agriculture has been burning slaughtered elk from CWD-exposed ranches with an incinerator capable of reaching temperatures of more than 2,500 degrees. That's the heat believed necessary to destroy the agents, called prions, most scientists blame for CWD and related illnesses, such as mad cow disease.

"The point is, we're leaving it out there (in the field or in landfills), and we're saying to everybody else, 'We want you to burn it,' " said Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos, a Moffat County rancher.

Agricultural Commissioner Don Ament even offered to share his agency's "air curtain" incinerator used on elk ranches. DOW officials said they might take him up on it.

In the end, commissioners instructed division staffers to come up with disposal options. Those could include a drop-off site, where hunters could take head and spinal material that would later be burned.

They also gave initial approval to a rule that would ban the transport of deer or elk carcasses outside the endemic area.

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