CRAIG – Orange banners reading “Welcome Hunters” outnumber the few political placards in this small town in northwestern Colorado.
Camouflage- and orange-clad hunters from Pennsylvania to California line up to buy licenses in sporting goods stores and to have their game processed in meat shops where some employees work 14-hour days to keep pace.
The discovery of chronic wasting disease in this hunting mecca has not slowed the hunters who flood into the area every fall and winter, hauling their trailers and spending money that will sustain the economy the rest of the year.
Richard and Maria Villasenor of Los Angeles had no qualms about making their seventh hunting trip to Colorado and decided not to have their elk heads tested at a state Division of Wildlife station.
“I’m not concerned enough to take the heads in, and I’m a medical doctor,” said Richard Villasenor as they waited for their meat to be cut and packaged at a shop.
Chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain ailment in deer and elk, is in the same family as mad-cow disease. It has been present in a small part of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming for decades.
Last spring’s discovery of a case near Craig, the first known incidence west of the Continental Divide, and a handful of subsequent cases had people nervous that hunters would stay away.
Since hunting season began the first of September, license sales have been up from last year when a doubling of out-of-state fees and post-Sept. 11 fallout drove business down about 30 percent.
Testing is being done statewide and in Wisconsin, site of the first known cases of the disease east of the Mississippi River.
State wildlife officials hope to calm hunters’ fears while also charting the prevalence of the disease.
Hunters submit animal heads because the mutant proteins thought to cause the disease are found in the brain, brain stem and lymph nodes.
In Colorado, samples are sent to Colorado State University in Fort Collins for analysis. The hunter pays $17 and gets the results in a week to 10 days.
The state will issue a hunter another license or a refund and reimburse meat-processing costs if the test is positive.
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.
“The more data we have, the better idea we have of where the disease is,” said Vicki Weber, who oversees the Division of Wildlife warehouse where hunters take their animal heads.
Weber expects the work to possibly double next week, when the elk-only season ends and the deer and elk season begins.
Concerns about chronic wasting disease were stoked by news that it is in the same family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which has been tied to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
Scientists say there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans and livestock, but stress more research is needed.
The Division of Wildlife 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.
“The majority of the hunters are getting their heads tested for their wives,” said Dave Tafoya, owner of a meat-processing shop.
Gary Baysinger estimated less than half the customers at his processing plant are testing their animals.
“Personally, I think the problem is more a problem of perception,” he said.
Still, Baysinger separated his main meatpacking business from the game business this year.
“It was to reassure the public, reassure the employees,” he said.
Alton Wolf of Groves, Texas, said he didn’t need to be reassured before making his annual trek to Colorado.
Outside a restaurant in nearby Meeker, Wolf said he had a big bull elk hanging at a local meat shop. “I’m going to have elk for Thanksgiving,” he said.