Steamboat Springs The results of lab tests on the first 86 of 300 deer destroyed near Pagoda this week have come back negative for chronic wasting disease.
Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer Dan Prenzlow broke the news to almost 100 people who packed into a meeting room at Yampa River State Park west of Hayden Wednesday night.
"That's the good news we just got back," Prenzlow told the gathering, which spilled out into the hallway.
Chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in two wild mule deer, which were inadvertently trapped last August behind a fence built to enclose a herd of domestic elk on the Motherwell Ranch southwest of Hayden.
Prenzlow said it is way too soon to speculate on the source of the disease; however, officials from the DOW, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wanted to meet with concerned locals as quickly as possible.
"There's misinformation out there and there are thousands of questions," he said.
Prenzlow said the number of deer killed this week was not pulled out of a hat; 300 is a number deemed to give sufficient data about how prevalent the disease might or might not be among the estimated 1,500 deer living in the area.
Prenzlow added the crews assigned with killing, tagging and shipping the deers' heads to a lab in Laramie were taking precautions not to spread the disease. They are using bleach to clean their vehicles, knives and clothing. They are even sprinkling bleach on the ground where the dead animals were handled.
Chronic wasting disease, which attacks the animal's brain stem, is not caused by a living microorganism but rather by a protein. As a result, bleach does not "kill" the source of the disease but neutralizes it.
Several people in the audience raised concerns about human health issues posed by CWD. Rick Kahn, who supervises terrestrial biologists for the DOW, said although hunters whose animals test positive for the disease are advised not to eat the meat, the chances of humans contracting CWD appears to be remote. In Northeast Colorado, where CWD is endemic in the mule deer population, hunters are advised to take precautions.
"If there was any inkling of human health risk, we wouldn't be hunting in Northeast Colorado," Kahn said. "We would have shut it down a long time ago."
Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead said he believes the state of Colorado, as owner of the big-game animals, should be doing more to reassure hunters the animals they harvest are disease free. Grinstead said the many businesses in Northwest Colorado who service hunters are like middle men in the big-game hunting industry.
"This is a product you're providing to these hunters and we're just waiters and waitresses," Grinstead said. "I think it should be up to the state to have an easy way to test the animals and get a result back in two days."
Tom Anderson echoed Grinstead's plea for a local testing lab.
"It could be done it just takes money, right?" Anderson said. After the meeting he said he has a specific concern about the potential for human health hazards associated with CWD.
"I'm eating elk this winter from an animal I killed two miles from that ranch. Would you want to come over and have dinner with me?"
Although this week's testing is focused on deer, both domestic and wild elk in Colorado have been known to contract CWD.
Kahn said he remains optimistic none of the deer killed outside the fenced enclosure on the Motherwell Ranch will test positive for CWD.
However, if significant numbers of diseased animals are detected outside the fence, the implications could be serious.
"There's a big mule deer management issue we need to get on top of, and we need to knock it down," Kahn said. If CWD were found in the free-ranging mule deer herd, and it was left unchecked, it could spread to 20, 30 even 40 percent of the population.
"That will devastate a deer herd," Kahn said.
In that scenario, Kahn suspects his agency would handle the disease differently than it does in Northeast Colorado. There, the goal is to contain the disease and not allow it to spread any further.
But on the Western Slope of Colorado, Kahn speculated, the DOW might attempt to eradicate the disease, which would mean destroying more animals in the affected area.
Kahn said he's hopeful the test result on the remaining 214 deer will be available as soon as Monday. He's also eager to receive the last test results on wild deer and elk harvested inside the enclosure on the Motherwell Ranch in January and February.
The test results could have much to say about the future health of deer and possibly elk herds in Northwest Colorado.