DOW prepared to test more deer and elk for CWD in 2003.

More than 26,000 deer and elk were tested for chronic wasting disease CWD) in Colorado last year in the largest, most intensive wildlife surveillance effort ever conducted in the state.

Division of Wildlife (DOW) employees, aided by volunteers from other state and federal agencies as well as private groups, collected samples submitted by hunters in every part of the state, recorded key information and delivered the samples to Colorado State University’s (CSU) Diagnostic Laboratory. CSU used a newly validated procedure, quickly tested the samples and provided the results to the DOW. The agency was then able to tell most hunters within two weeks whether CWD had been detected in the deer and elk they had killed, the fastest turn around time ever for CWD testing.

Of the 26,551 animals tested, 26,278 tested negative and 273 were found to have CWD, including 52 outside the portion of northeastern Colorado where the disease has been found for more than two decades.

Kathi Green, the CWD coordinator for the DOW, told the Colorado Wildlife Commission Thursday that the agency is prepared to test as many as 50,000 deer, elk and moose in 2003 with a turnaround time as rapid as last year. The cost of the test is expected to be under $20 and hunters will receive test results within two weeks.

“Successfully testing this many animals and getting results to hunters in a matter of weeks is a remarkable achievement and truly unprecedented,” said DOW Director Russell George. “This could only have been accomplished by a dedicated group of professionals working as a team. With essential help from volunteers and excellent work by CSU’s diagnostic laboratory, we provided a surveillance system that many predicted couldn’t be done on such a short timeline.”

Green told Commissioners that in 2003, the DOW hopes to replace paper forms with an electronic system using hand-held scanners to quickly and rapidly record and store information. Hunting licenses may include a bar code that will be scanned when hunters submit animals for testing.

“The scanners will be able to record the township, range and section where the animals was harvested – information that is essential to our CWD management efforts,” Green said.

DOW Veterinarian Mike Miller told the Commission that the 2002 surveillance effort produced some surprising results and confirmed some trends that had already been emerging.

While the analysis of the 2002 surveillance isn’t complete, Miller said enough work has been done to make some determinations. Among the findings:

–CWD was more widespread in northwestern Colorado than previously thought, with clusters of infection in deer south of Craig and in elk in Grand County. A single case on the north side of the Grand Mesa well away from any other confirmed case was especially puzzling, he said.

–Buck deer and bull elk appear to be twice as likely to be infected with CWD compared to doe deer and cow elk. “In most unit we looked at, the prevalence in bucks was twice what it was in does, and the same was true for bull elk,” Miller said. “This may be the reason we haven’t been seeing predicted population reductions due to CWD, because females are less effected and the number of females controls the size of the herd.”

–The overall prevalence of CWD may actually have been overstated somewhat because prevalence rates have thus far been based only on buck deer. The reason, Miller explained, is that doe hunting is restricted or prohibited in some units.

–Within the northeastern Colorado established area, CWD is becoming more common. “Slowly but surely, prevalence is increasing,” Miller, one of the world’s foremost CWD experts, told the Commission. “We’re not seeing a huge trend but the increase is significant and persistent.”

The disease is not uniformly distributed, Miller said. “Hot spots” of infection, including along the northern Front Range in Larimer and northern Boulder counties, have prevalence rates as high as 20 percent compared to the overall average of 5-to-6 percent in deer in the northeastern Colorado established area.

–In game management units that include Larimer County and northern Boulder County, the prevalence is 7-to-13 percent in deer. Elk prevalence was about 4 percent in southern Larimer and northern Boulder counties and in Grand County.

–Targeted culling, in which deer and elk populations are reduced in specific areas where prevalence is especially high, appears to be an effective way to manage the disease by reducing prevalence and limiting its spread. Surveillance over the next several years will help determine just how effective targeted culling can be.

–The DOW received more than 22,000 calls from hunters who took advantage of the Division’s interactive voice response (IVR) system to check CWD test results over the phone. “That makes this the most used IVR system I’ve ever been associated with,” said Mike McKinney, president of comHAUS, Inc., the company that managed the IVR technology for the DOW. A hunter himself, McKinney used the system three times himself to check test results. Hunters were also able to check test results on the DOW’s Web site and through the agency’s customer service representatives at offices around the state. The IVR system and Web access should again be available to hunters for 2003.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal, degenerative neurological disease of deer and elk that occurs in wild herds in a number of states and one Canadian province. An aberrant protein causes the disease. There is no known cure.

The disease has not been found to infect humans. But as a precaution, the DOW, along with federal and state health officials, recommend that the meat of infected animals not be eaten. Colorado deer and elk hunters can have their animals tested again this year. Testing is mandatory within the established area in northeastern Colorado and is voluntary elsewhere. Animals may be submitted for testing during hunting seasons at locations throughout Colorado.

For more details on CWD and other wildlife issues, check the DOW’s Web site at www.wildlife.state.co.us.