Sixteen Colorado Division of Wildlife agents on Monday began killing hundreds of deer in the vicinity of a Routt County elk ranch where one of the animals tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
Using a helicopter, agents started shooting mule deer within a five-mile radius of the Motherwell elk ranch, which is about three miles east of Pagoda in southwestern Routt County. Up to 300 deer around the 2,000-acre ranch may be killed.
"We are hunting them down," said Susan Werner, an aerial wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife. "How many we kill will be determined by what we find as we test the herd."
On Friday, a deer that was fenced in with a commercial elk herd last summer tested positive for the fatal brain disease.
How the deer got the disease is under investigation. It is the first case reported on the Western Slope, which has some Routt County residents concerned.
"Since this is our first case, this is a pretty serious situation," Werner said. Officials suspect two other deer from the ranch have the disease, but test results for those animals were not available Monday.
Killing deer around the ranch is the only way to determine if there are additional cases.
"We are hoping the disease is only inside the ranch and not on the outside," she said.
Chronic wasting disease attacks the brains of infected deer and elk causing the animals to starve to death.
A mutant protein causes the disease, and there is not a vaccine or a cure for it.
There is also no way to test a live animal for the disease.
The disease has been found in deer and elk herds in five states, which include parts of Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. Cases in Colorado were thought to be confined to the northern part of the state.
Friday's discovery at the Motherwell Ranch prompted wildlife agents from Jackson, Routt and Rio Blanco counties to converge on the ranch.
Agents are only targeting deer around the Motherwell Ranch because there is no proof the disease has spread to elk, Werner said.
Deer killed in the hunt will have their heads removed. The heads will then be taken to Fort Collins where they will be tested for the disease.
Werner expects the first load of slain deer to be transported to Fort Collins this morning.
Officials are exploring two options to dispose of the carcasses. A mobile incinerator, expected to arrive at the scene today, is one option. The other is to dump the carcasses in a Moffat County landfill.
Werner said getting test results takes about 24 hours.
Motherwell is one of the state's newest captive-elk facilities, opening nine months ago. An eight-foot-high wooden fence surrounds the ranch.
In January and February, 281 entrapped wild deer and 43 entrapped wild elk were killed at the ranch during public hunts.
Although the disease is not linked to any neurological diseases that affect humans, officials are urging anyone who has meat from the hunts not to eat it until the testing is complete.
The state conducted the testing at the Motherwell Ranch because wild deer and elk were trapped within the ranch and were coming into contact with domestic elk, Werner said.
Local hunting guides said a spread of the disease could be disastrous.
"I think it would be devastating for everybody," if the disease were to spread, said Lonny Vanatta a Steamboat Springs hunting guide.
Vanatta has exclusive guiding privileges on the 40,000-acre Cross Mountain Ranch. A portion of the ranch borders the Motherwell Ranch.
Prospective clients often ask him if Cross Mountain is in a CWD area before booking a hunt. Prior to last week, he has always been able to tell them the disease has never come anywhere close to the ranch in Northwest Colorado.
As good as the elk hunting on Cross Mountain is, deer were not evident in large numbers last fall, he said.
Vanatta said he hates to see 300 wild animals destroyed in the DOW's efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
"It's really too bad for the animals," Vanatta said.
Judith Harrington, owner of Harrington Elk Ranch, said she is hopeful this case of CWD in Routt County will prompt the Colorado Division of Wildlife to be more aggressive.
She claims domestic elk are not the source of CWD, and the DOW has been ignoring the problem in northeast Colorado for too long.
Harrington has about 175 elk on her ranch along Deep Creek in the lower Elk River Valley. That number will swell by 60 to 70 animals after calving this spring.
"They like to blame us," Harrington said. "I'm very concerned. I don't want (CDW) in my animals, and I don't want it in wild animals. We've got to work together and find a live animal test. We need to learn how the disease is spread."
Harrington said any time an elk dies on her ranch, whether it was slaughtered for meat or died of another cause, she sends the brain tissue to a lab where it is tested for CWD.
"I'm clean," Harrington said. "I don't have any sick animals."
She also tests her herd for tuberculosis, a process that costs $2,000 annually.
Harrington said there is strong incentive for self-regulation in the elk industry. Any rancher who has a single animal test positive for CWD knows in advance that all of their animals will be destroyed and their operations will be wiped out."
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger fears the presence of the disease could weaken hunting season next fall.
"It is too early to tell what impact this will have," Monger said. "But common sense says it might impact hunting severely."
Along with killing deer, wildlife officials also plan to check other deer found in the vicinity of the Motherwell Ranch this month.
Additional surveys are also planned this fall.