Veterinary pathologists at the Colorado State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory are up to their ears in elk and deer samples.

Since hunting season began Sept. 1, around 2,500 samples have been sent to the diagnostic laboratory to be tested for chronic wasting disease, a fatal deer and elk brain ailment that is in the same family as mad-cow disease. Between 15 and 20 samples have tested positive for the disease.

The disease has been in a small part of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming for more than 30 years, but it recently was discovered west of the Continental Divide near Craig, prompting more hunters to have their animals tested, said Terry Spraker, a veterinary pathologist at the CSU Diagnostic Laboratory.

“The awareness, or the concern, of the hunters has increased because CWD seems … to be in many areas,” Spraker said. “The hunters’ animals are being tested and it’s a cooperation between the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State University.”

Two samples out of nearly 1,000 collected in Craig since September have tested positive. One animal was shot by a wildlife officer, and another was hit by a vehicle.

Vicki Weber, who oversees the Division of Wildlife warehouse where hunters take their animal heads, said the work is just beginning. She expects the load possibly to double as the elk-only season ends and the deer and elk rifle season begins next week. Deer that have been brought in to this point were killed during the archery and muzzleloading seasons.

To test for wasting disease, Colorado Division of Wildlife technicians remove lymph node and other tissue samples from the heads of animals killed by hunters and send them to CSU in plastic bags.

At CSU, pathologists select pieces of the tissue to test for CWD. The laboratory is using a quicker test, the Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay, which takes about two days. It’s faster than the usual four days required to run an immunohistochemistry analysis.

The first 2,000 samples received both tests, Spraker said, but now the laboratory is relying on the ELISA test. If an animal tests positive, however, the results will be verified with the gold standard IHC test.

The diagnostic lab gives the test results to the DOW, which communicates them to the hunter. In some areas, hunters are asked to bring their animals for testing, but in other areas it’s voluntary.

Scientists say there is no evidence chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans and livestock but stress more research is needed.

The DOW urges hunters to use gloves and cut the meat from the bone rather than through bone. Meat processors said they are trying to minimize risks in case an animal is infected, but most hunters don’t seem worried.