BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department want to study chronic wasting disease in a radically new way, tracking infected deer instead of killing them.
They are proposing capturing between 100 and 120 deer, testing them for the disease, tagging them with radio collars, then release them back into the wild to find out how the disease affects the animals that contract it and how it spreads. “It’ll be the first study of its type, probably, in the entire United States, that attempts to look at the survivorship of infected animals and healthy animals,” said Charles Southwick, a University of Colorado ecologist who is serving as a consultant to the program. Wildlife managers have been dealing with chronic wasting disease by killing deer in “hot spot” populations where the disease has been found, hoping to reduce its prevalence. Southwick and others say that approach is flawed because otherwise healthy deer are often killed. “Colorado and other states took this very aggressive stance of eradicating the disease by eradicating the host population, and I always said that’s not a wise approach,” Southwick said. Rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park, meanwhile, are already in the middle of a program in which they capture deer and test them for the disease using a tonsil biopsy, and then kill infected ones. The Boulder program’s managers won’t even kill the animals that test positive for the disease. They hoped that by keeping infected animals alive, they will be able to see exactly how the disease works in the wild, said Bryan Pritchett, a natural resources coordinator for the Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. Pritchett said they’ll be able to see how long it takes to kill deer and whether it makes them more susceptible to predators or highway accidents. “Having an opportunity to sort of watch what may be CWD-positive deer throughout the rest of their lives is going to answer a lot of questions for us,” Pritchett said. By tracking infected and healthy deer for between two and four years, land managers say they also hope to get a better idea of how the disease spreads. The plan, which is scheduled to begin in August, has to be approved by the Open Space Board of Trustees and the Boulder City Council before it can begin.