Owens addresses CWD

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— Gov. Bill Owens promised Northwest Colorado officials that the state would take an aggressive approach to dealing with chronic wasting disease.

Owens and top officials from the state Division of Wildlife, Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources flew into Yampa Valley Regional Airport Tuesday to meet with Routt and Moffat county officials, representatives from Hayden and Craig, local ranchers and business owners who rely on hunting.

"We are walking a fine line," Owens said. "We are going to be aggressive. But at the same time, we don't want to scare away business."

The discovery of chronic wasting disease in deer at a Routt County ranch has local officials concerned about the hunting season, but many said Tuesday they support the state's action.

Attending Tuesday's meeting with Owens were Division of Wildlife Director Russell George, Department of Agriculture Director Tom Ament and Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher.

Owens announced he has created an eight-member task force to address CWD. Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison and Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association Executive Vice President Sandy Evans-Hall were named to the task force.

Two deer fenced in with a commercial elk herd last summer at the Motherwell Ranch in southwestern Routt County recently tested positive for chronic wasting disease, marking the first time the disease has been found on the Western Slope. Cases in the state were thought to be confined to northeastern Colorado.

The two cases prompted wildlife officials to kill 311 wild deer within a five-mile radius of the Motherwell Ranch, which is at the base of the Beaver Flat Tops southwest of Hayden.

Of the deer killed, officials announced Tuesday two tested positive for CWD. Because of the test results, officials are planning to kill additional deer in the area.

"Obviously, the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease west of the Continental Divide is of great concern for the state, not only with regard to the state's tourism economy, but also the health of the wildlife," Owens said. "This task force will help us chart the best course of action to contain and reduce CWD."

The 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. How CWD is spread is not known. There is also no viable way to test a live animal for the disease.

"We are not making a judgment where it came from," Owens said. "We simply don't know."

Walcher and Ament will co-chair the task force.

"The task force is one that reflects the interests that are impacted by this challenge," Owens said.

Along with the task force, Owens said he plans to work with the governors of eight states that are also battling the disease.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Owens said.

Other states that have had CWD outbreaks include Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Local officials applauded the steps Owens announced but continued to express concern about the impact the disease could have on hunting.

"This already is a big problem," Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead said. "The wound has been established. We need to control the bleeding."

Grinstead said the state must develop a quick way to test deer and elk that are killed by hunters this fall.

Grinstead said a mobile testing laboratory for the area should be a priority for the state to ensure hunters will venture to Northwest Colorado.

George agreed.

"Testing is the key to this whole thing," said George, who is from Rifle. "We have to have all the facts."

George said the DOW is working on developing a second test for CWD that is quicker than the current test, which takes a couple of days. To determine if an animal is infected with the disease, tissue from the animal's tonsils, lymph nodes and brain stem are analyzed.

George said this second test can provide quicker results than the first test, which focuses on the brain stem.

Craig Mayor Dave DeRose said his town's economy is already very fragile and this development should prompt government officials to help local businesses.

Cathy Vanatta, who is the director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, said she supports Owens' plan.

"I'm going to be very optimistic this won't be as bad as it could be," Vanatta said. "But if we can extinguish a lot of concern, that will be a huge benefit."

Dan Craig, president of the Routt County Farm Bureau, had a simple message to the state leaders.

"Be honest with everybody," said Craig, a Phippsburg rancher. "They are taking a good approach in being upfront and not playing any games.

"They have to be upfront and develop a test, and it has to work."

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