Residents decry plan to slash deer numbers
DOW officials take aim at wasting disease

January 14, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
For Marsha Barber, a resident of the Mountain Meadows subdivision west of Boulder, seeing wild deer near her home is 'one of the main joys of life.'

That's why she's worried.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is about to take on the daunting task of controlling a chronic-wasting disease epidemic in wild game herds. In the process, Barber and others were told at a meeting near Boulder last week, thousands of deer will have to be killed. 'It's a very hard pill to swallow,' Barber said. 'To them it seems they're just numbers. ... I don't think there's one person who doesn't recognize this is a terrible disease and needs to be stopped. But we would like to have more confidence in the assumptions they're making.'

She worries about the local mountain lion population, too. If the deer are gone, will the lions turn to pets and livestock?

For months, the state Division of Wildlife has been focused on controlling the disease in domesticated elk. Now, the agency will implement plans drawn up over the last two years that put them squarely up against concerns of people like Barber.

On paper, the agency's strategy appears simple. Draw a fire line around the endemic area in four northeastern counties, extinguish hot spots of infection at the edges by eliminating individual herds, and depress the overall deer population to reduce transmission of the fatal neurological malady from one animal to another.

But DOW officials admit the strategy is a big experiment, one whose outcome is uncertain. And they know some members of the public will object to the control program, which in practice means killing thousands of deer, many of which will not be infected.

In one game management unit north of Fort Collins, biologists want to reduce the deer herd by 50 percent. That's 2,000 animals.

The issue came to a boil in the meeting last week, where some residents saw the DOW strategy as 'shoot first, ask questions later.'

Last year, biologists discovered a CWD-positive buck on Sugarloaf Mountain, west of Boulder. Jeff Ver Steeg, the DOW's terrestrial wildlife manager, explained that the buck was found near a 'fire line' - in this case, the St. Vrain River.

'We know the deer it hung out with are exposed,' he said. 'We have to assume some of them have it. So we want to remove that group of about 20 exposed deer to prevent the disease from moving south.'

Barber and others want the DOW to adopt a 'test first and shoot later' policy, using an experimental tonsil biopsy test to identify infected animals. Wildlife officials said the test is an effective way to judge infection rates in areas where the agency lacks data. But relocating infected animals after test results come back would be impossible, Ver Steeg said.

The dramatic shift in goals, from growing deer herds to reducing them, has been difficult for some agency biologists to accept as well.

'This is the antithesis of what they've spent their entire careers trying to do,' DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. 'Intellectually, they understand the science behind the policy. Emotionally, it's tough.'

But the agency is also under pressure to be even more aggressive. Wildlife Commissioner Robert Shoemaker has suggested the agency should consider eradicating all deer in the endemic area and maintaining zero population for years.

At Thursday's wildlife commission meeting, the DOW's deer management plans for the endemic area, which had been up for approval, were instead yanked. Next month, wildlife commissioners will review them to see if they go far enough.

Even if it were possible to remove every deer - which biologists stress is not possible - the CWD epidemic extends deep into Wyoming and runs east to Nebraska. While Colorado's wildlife agency is attempting to address the epidemic, Wyoming game officials haven't even started.

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