Mountain and foothills residents who feed deer and elk actually may be killing them.

State wildlife officials warn that crowding animals together around troughs or feeding stations may be a good way to spread chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder that eats holes in the brains of elk and deer.

“We strongly suspect that crowding from artificial feeding contributes directly to the transmission of CWD,” said Mike Miller, state Division of Wildlife veterinarian.

“We know that artificial feeding concentrates animals and accelerates the spread of diseases like brucellosis and tuberculosis, and all the evidence indicates it is the same for CWD.”

But in areas like Estes Park, and subdivisions from Fort Collins to Boulder, feeding has been going on for so many years that it’s part of the psyche.

“It’s actually a culture here,” said Rick Spowart, district wildlife manager in the Estes Park area.

“I’ve been struggling to educate people ever since we passed the regulation seven or eight years ago making it illegal to feed big game wildlife.”

He said he has made headway by using public meetings, television and newspaper articles, and brochures to get the word out, but there still are some who are difficult to persuade.

“There is a bed-and-breakfast here that I wrote two warnings for,” he said.

“They wouldn’t quit, so one day I stopped by and said, ‘I guess you know what I’m here for,’ and they invited me in and the wife pulled out her checkbook and said, ‘How much do we owe you?’

“It was $68, but that’s not the point.”

He said one ancient buck hanging around in back of the B-and-B was the fattest deer he’d ever seen.

There was another woman who had a trough in front of her home with the words “Deer Food” painted on it.

“I guess she thought even a dumb game warden would get that,” he laughed.

“I went to talk to her and she grabbed me by the arm and really chewed me out. I really got an earful on how the deer would die without help and the state had no right to tell her what to do on her own property.”

Spowart found a deer that died of CWD just down the street from her house a short time later, and after he showed it to her, she quit the feeding practice.

All of the feeders are well-intentioned and most have been doing it from the time they moved to Estes, either because they believe the winter will kill the animals or because they simply want to see them up close.

“Many have names for them and believe they can tell offspring and even sires,” he said.

Spowart said he’s issued only a half-dozen citations this year, mainly because he’s “softhearted.”

Dave Clarkson, a CWD specialist with the Division of Wildlife said, “We have hot pockets of CWD all the way down to Boulder, and most of them are in areas where people fed animals.

“But we’ve talked to a lot of people in subdivisions and they are watching and policing their own areas and I really feel we’re starting to see a change in attitude.”