Steamboat Springs Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists will start an effort today to wipe out all deer and elk within a five-mile radius of a Routt County elk ranch where five deer have been found with chronic wasting disease.
Over the weekend, a fifth deer tested positive for the fatal brain disease that is found in deer and elk. The deer was killed last week miles away from the Motherwell Ranch, which is in a remote area southwest of Hayden.
Because two wild mule deer inside the captive elk ranch and three other deer outside the ranch have tested positive for CWD, the DOW is being aggressive in dealing with the first cases of the disease found on the Western Slope.
"Our goal is to do everything we can to eradicate the disease on the Western Slope," DOW Director Russell George said in a released statement. "We believe we have a reasonable chance of success if we move quickly and decisively prior to the major spring migrations."
Already 329 deer have been killed around the Motherwell Ranch since the first two deer, which were entrapped with a domestic elk herd inside the facility last summer, tested positive.
Because the two deer that were killed inside the ranch earlier this year tested positive for CWD, officials killed 311 deer in the five-mile radius between April 1-3. From that effort, two additional deer tested positive for CWD. These two deer were killed in the same area miles from the ranch.
This prompted wildlife officials to kill 18 more deer last week in the same area, which produced the fifth positive deer.
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.
Because state officials want to stop the disease from spreading and are concerned CWD may impact the hunting economy in Northwest Colorado and the rest of the Western Slope, all deer and elk found in this area will be killed.
"We want to remove as many animals as we can," DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. "We don't know how many will be killed."
Because the spring migration is approaching, wildlife officials are acting immediately.
"Once the spring migration begins, thousands of animals will move through this area," said Dan Prenzlow, DOW area wildlife manager in Craig. "Our goal is to remove animals that have been exposed to CWD before the migration begins."
The disease has been endemic in portions of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming for more than two decades. The source and the way it is transmitted is unknown.
"We consider these three cases in Routt County to be an outbreak of CWD since the positive deer were found 120 miles from the endemic area," said Jeff Ver Steeg, the DOW's terrestrial wildlife manager.
Ver Steeg said there is not deer or elk migration between the northeastern Colorado endemic area and Routt County. More than 600 animals in the area between Routt County and the endemic area have been tested.
"We don't know how CWD reached this Western Slope herd, but we know we must act immediately to try and stop it," Ver Steeg said.
Malmsbury said the heads of the animals killed this week will be sent to the division's research facility in Fort Collins to be tested. Officials expect to dispose of the carcasses with an incinerator at a nearby wildlife area.
Most of the culling will occur on private land, which the DOW has been granted access to.
Officials do not expect the culling efforts to impact the upcoming hunting season even though hundreds of deer and elk could be killed.
Officials claim there are thousands of animals in this portion of the state, however, the culling will be limited to the five-mile radius that surrounds the ranch.
"This is the toughest, most unpleasant job our wildlife field staff has ever been faced with," George said. "Culling hundreds of deer and elk is the last thing they want to do.
"But we believe it would be irresponsible to take no action in the hope that chronic wasting disease will somehow disappear on its own. We owe it to all Coloradans to do what we can now, rather than leave this problems for others to solve."
The Motherwell Ranch is also being impacted because of the outbreak. The Department of Agriculture is planning to eliminate the 140 elk that the ranch currently houses.
Officials are not sure when the elk will be killed. However, the department has quarantined the facility to ensure none of the elk leave the premises. Once the elk are killed, they also will be tested for CWD.