Saturday, August 31, 2002
Bowhunting season opened Saturday, just five months after chronic wasting disease was discovered in deer on a ranch in Routt County.
It was the first time the disease had been found west of the Continental Divide, and at the time, area officials feared the discovery would have dire consequences for Northwest Colorado and its hunting-dependent economy.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates total direct expenditures as a result of deer and elk hunting in Routt and Moffat counties total about $15 million annually. About half of that comes from out-of-state hunters and the rest from Colorado hunters. Make no mistake hunting is big business, and it is vital to this area. It is especially critical for communities that have no other tourism draw on which to fall back.
The 2001 hunting season was lackluster, crippled by a sharp increase in license fees for out-of-state hunters, an economic recession and the lingering impact of the Sept. 11 tragedy. So last March, when CWD was discovered in mule deer on a captive elk ranch near the Moffat and Routt county lines, many predicted the worst empty hotels and restaurants this fall and dismal hunting numbers for a second straight season.
But as the season starts, such fears appear unfounded. The DOW reports a record number of applications 430,000 for hunting license drawings this year.
Tony Stoffle, an outdoor recreation specialist with the Craig Chamber of Commerce, worried for months what impact CWD would have on the area economy. But he said last week most of the calls he has received have been about area wildfires and the impact the drought will have on the season. He said he has had very few calls about CWD.
Obviously, hunters are doing what many officials were afraid they wouldn't be able to do keeping the disease in perspective. After all, CWD has been found in less than 1 percent of deer tested on the Western Slope and in none of the elk.
The state deserves credit for the way it has responded the past few months to the threat CWD posed, putting in place an aggressive testing system. There are testing sites in four communities statewide, including Craig, and collection sites in another 16 communities, including Steamboat. Hunters can have their animals tested for $17, and hunters in the endemic area around Fort Collins will be required to have their animals tested. Between Colorado and Wisconsin, officials hope to have up to 50,000 animals tested this year. That should provide the best data yet on CWD, how it is spread and how far it has spread.
Elk and deer populations are high. If the weather cooperates, the 2002 hunting season many feared would be disastrous could prove to be quite the opposite. That's good news for Steamboat, Craig and the rest of Northwest Colorado.