Colorado Division of Wildlife officials met with area residents Wednesday night at the Yampa River State Park headquarters in Hayden to answer questions about the recent outbreak of chronic wasting disease in southern Routt County.
"There's a lot of misconceptions and rumors flying," Ron Velarde, the west regional manager for the DOW said after the meeting. "We don't know the answers to a lot of their questions, but we wanted people to know what we're doing."
More than 100 people packed the meeting room that had been set up to seat 50.
Area elk breeders, outfitters, business people, sportsmen, law enforcement officials and a doctor were in the crowd.
Many had to listen from the hallway, while some had to stand outside and peer through a patio door to hear the officials' explanations about the deer eradication the state is conducting at the Motherwell Ranch south of Hayden.
The DOW has killed 300 deer within a five-mile radius of the ranch as a result of two wild mule deer that recently tested positive for the disease within the ranch.
The two deer that tested positive are the first confirmed cases on the Western Slope. The DOW has been trying to control the disease in Northeast Colorado, termed "the endemic area," for several years.
"This is a jump of 120 miles from the endemic area," said Rick Kahn, the big game supervisor with the DOW.
Officials are not yet sure how the disease made the 120-mile jump.
If the deer surrounding the Motherwell Ranch are discovered to be carrying the disease and the domestic elk within the ranch are not, it means the wild deer in the area are likely carrying the disease.
If the deer test negative and the elk within the ranch test positive, an assumption could be made the disease came from the elk, Kahn said.
"Our hope and expectation is this has not gotten outside of the fence," Kahn said. "An endemic area is an area where free-roaming deer have the disease. I'm darn hopeful that disease is not outside of that fence."
Regardless of what is discovered through testing, the state will perform more examinations in the future, he said.
"Even if they all come up negative we will go back in this summer and cull some more deer in the area," he said. "We want to get some more samples. We'll also do some hunter surveillance in the area next fall. It will be similar to what we've done on the Eastern Slope."
The audience had several questions for DOW officials several of which officials could not answer.
One person asked if it is known how the disease is passed from one animal to another.
"It's pretty clear it moves via saliva, urine and feces but we're not certain yet," Kahn said.
Another question was what dangers the disease poses for humans.
"It appears there is a barrier between this disease and humans," he said.
"If there was any inkling there was a human health risk we would not be hunting in Northwest Colorado."
One person asked if the disease originates in domestic elk.
"There's plenty of places where it has not been near domestic elk," Kahn said. "We still don't know where this disease comes from."
An audience member expressed concern about other states banning Colorado meat.
"The only one I know of so far is Missouri and it only affects hunters in the endemic area," Kahn said.
After the meeting local elk rancher Steve Herman said he was concerned Northwest Colorado would soon be labeled an endemic area.
"If those elk test negative I think they're going to have to consider this an endemic area," he said. "If there's two wild deer with the disease, I think we have one."
But Herman said he was impressed with how the DOW is handling the situation.
"They definitely have a difficult task ahead of them," he said. "I would not want to be in their shoes."