Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a plan to stem the spread of chronic wasting disease.
If you're not a hunter, you may not know what chronic wasting disease is. It's a form of prion disease, which is always fatal to those infected. Among other prion diseases are scrapie in sheep and goats, mad cow disease in cows and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease in humans.
Chronic wasting disease affects deer, elk, reindeer and moose. The Sentinel's Dennis Webb broke down the prevalence in Colorado herds, including a 10-fold increase in the White River mule deer herd that has wildlife officials — and Meeker-area hunters — alarmed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, scientists believe CWD proteins (prions) "likely spread between animals through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food or water. Once introduced into an area or farm, the CWD protein is contagious within deer and elk populations and can spread quickly."
No cases have been reported of CWD spreading to humans, but as Webb noted, some research suggests it can infect primates that eat meat from infected animals or come into contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk.
So, wildlife officials recommend testing harvested carcasses. In some areas where prevalence is high, testing is mandatory, but free. But testing can be done regardless of harvest location for a $25 cost subsidized by the agency. There's a whole bevy of protocols for field dressing animals and disposing of animal parts, too.
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Hunters, of course, know all this. They've been dealing with CWD since the early 2000s. But as prevalence rates go up, hunters seemed to be getting more alarmed. The senior wildlife biologist for the northwest area told Webb that a number of hunters in the Meeker area have indicated they want the agency to be proactive about the disease, even if it reduces hunting quality in the short term.
The agency's response plan is to target adult males, or bucks, which become infected at higher rates than young deer and does. The plan calls for using hunter harvest management as needed.
Mandatory testing of White River herd bucks in 2017 showed a 15.3 percent prevalence of CWD, compared to just 1.3 percent in 2003.
This is scary stuff. Wildlife officials want to get the prevalence rate below 5 percent. Rates greater than that seem to cause exponential damage, making it difficult to manage herd health and numbers and attract hunters, which figure prominently into containing the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Wildlife officials cannot relish talking about chronic wasting disease, but they have been honest about the extent of the problem and what they plan to do about it. It's important for the public to understand the plan so that it can see whether it's working — though that's expected to take years. Meanwhile, hunters can't be too careful with precautions.