The Colorado Division of Wildlife knowingly used a herd of captive elk exposed to chronic wasting disease in a grazing study on the Western Slope in January 1990, possibly introducing the disease to the elk-rich area.

“It was a bad call,” said Jeff Ver Steeg, the division’s top game manager. “I can’t deny it.”

About 150 wild elk were allowed to graze in the same pens near Maybell after the research herd was removed and may have picked up the abnormal protein that causes the disease from the feces and urine left by the captive elk.

While the Division of Wildlife has expressed concern before that its animals might have helped spread CWD, this is the first time the agency has acknowledged it knowingly moved elk exposed to CWD deep into an area where the disease was not known to already exist.

Studies that could help determine the source of CWD on the Western Slope are incomplete, and officials say what data that do exist are so new and so spotty they may not provide all the answers. So far, it appears that less than 1 percent of deer and elk in the area are infected, compared with as much as 15 to 20 percent in hotspots in northeastern Colorado.

But as wildlife officials grapple with CWD’s appearance in northwestern Colorado, officials now admit the decision to continue the grazing study over the objections of some biologists was an error.

At the time, biologists wanted to see whether elk grazing on winter range depleted forage that ranchers wanted for fattening cattle in spring.

“I think in hindsight a lot of good people probably did some dumb things, myself included,” said Bruce Gill, a retired wildlife manager who oversaw research efforts and remembers the debate over the project. “Had we known CWD would explode into such a potentially volatile ecologic and economic issue, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Elk ranchers, who have been blamed for exporting the disease from its stronghold on the Colorado and Wyoming plains to seven states and two Canadian provinces, say the agency’s belated disclosure smacks of a coverup.

“It’s pure negligence,” said Jerry Perkins, a Delta banker and rancher who is now demanding a legislative inquiry. “If I’d have moved animals I knew to be infected around like that, I’d be in jail.”

Grand Junction veterinarian and sportsman Dick Steele said he faults the agency for not disclosing information about CWD-exposed research animals before October, when information was posted on the Division of Wildlife website.

“This went way beyond poor judgment,” he said. “My main concern is that this has been hidden for the last 12 years. It would have been real important to our decision-making process on how to deal with CWD.”

While the Maybell information is new, Perkins and other ranchers have long suspected Division of Wildlife research facilities near Meeker and Kremmling, which temporarily housed mule deer kept in heavily infected pens at the Fort Collins facility, have leaked CWD to the wild.

Fear of an outbreak led the agency to sample 450 deer around the Meeker and Kremmling facilities. None tested positive, but the sample size was only large enough to detect cases if the infection rate was greater than 1 percent.

This fall, tests on 23,000 deer and elk submitted by hunters statewide have revealed 48 CWD cases north of Interstate 70 and west of the Continental Divide.

Biologists believe the infection rate in that area, which includes the Maybell, Meeker and Kremmling sites, is still well below 1 percent. But CWD has never been contained in a wild population, so experts fear the problem will grow worse.

The Division of Wildlife says it will be months before a statistical analysis of the fall’s sampling results can be completed, an exercise that may shed light on the disease’s origin on the Western Slope.

“We’re just not going to speculate at this point,” said Ver Steeg of the possible Maybell connection. “This is one possibility, but certainly not the only possibility.”

Some biologists think a defunct elk ranch near Pagoda, which had dozens of unexplained deaths in the mid-’90s, is another, a suggestion Perkins rejects.

“It may be inconclusive to them,” said Perkins. “It isn’t inconclusive to us.”