Groups say state covered up CWD exposure

State official calls accusation

When chronic wasting disease was discovered on the Western Slope for the first time last spring, the Colorado Division of Wildlife said it was surprised at the disease's jump from the endemic area near Fort Collins -- the only place the disease was known to exist up until that time.

But several groups in Colorado say it's no mystery how the disease spread to Northwest Colorado, and say the state knew about it all along.

Groups like the Colorado Mule Deer Association and Colorado Elk Breeders Association say the disease was introduced in Northwest Colorado in either 1989 or 1990 at a management area 19 miles north of Maybell.

"It's good that this is coming out," said Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association. "We've been saying this for years and no one would listen. It's a good thing they're (Colorado Division of Wildlife) finally 'fessing up and I hope they do something about it."

What Walker is referring to is an assertion made by Denny Behrens, executive director of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, who has said elk from Rocky Mountain National Park were held in Fort Collins in pens contaminated with CWD. The animals were transferred back and forth to the Maybell facility in the late 1980s.

The information Behrens referred to is available on the Division of Wildlife Web site.

The Web site report states that 11 elk from the Fort Collins laboratory were used in the grazing study near Maybell, and four of those were eventually found to have chronic wasting disease.

A total of 152 wild elk were kept at the Maybell facility at the same time as the 11 elk from the Fort Collins laboratory.

Of those 152 wild elk, which were eventually released into the wild in Northwest Colorado, 10 could have had contact with the CWD infected elk, the report states.

Some have attacked the Colorado Division of Wildlife for covering up the research conducted near Maybell.

But Dawn Taylor, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the DOW, discounted the attacks.

"There's no cover-up," she said. "It's not a secret study. It was brought forward at a chronic wasting disease task force meeting."

The information about the study has been available all along, she said.

"The notion that it's been kept secret is ridiculous," she said.

Taylor did note that a study such as the one 15 years ago would never be conducted now.

"Obviously we wouldn't do something like that now, knowing what we know now," she said.

Walker also said similar facilities to the one near Maybell were also near Meeker and Kremmling.

Those facilities housed mule deer from infected pens at the Fort Collins facility, and the groups attacking the DOW regarding the Maybell facility are saying that the disease could have also been introduced in Northwest Colorado from animals housed near Meeker and Kremmling.

Taylor said all theories are being considered.

"We're looking at all possibilities and that's one that has been floated," she said of the Maybell facility.

But Walker said it's the elk ranching industry that has continually had fingers pointed at it for the spread of the disease.

The allegations, he said, have resulted in increased surveillance on the industry, which has cost ranchers a significant amount of money.

"We've been getting a bad rap," he said. "Hopefully this will change."

Walker said the Division of Wildlife has concerns of its own, and should leave the elk industry alone.

State law says the Department of Agriculture is in charge of regulating domestic animals.

"We hope they continue to let the Department of Agriculture do the job they've been doing," he said of the DOW. "They shouldn't stick their nose into regulating the elk industry."

But Walker said he was confident with the DOW, and commended its director.

"I'm glad I'm not in their shoes," he said. "Admitting it is the first step. Give credit to Russell George."

Prior to last spring, chronic wasting disease, which is fatal in deer and elk, was not known to exist in Colorado outside of the endemic area in Northeast Colorado near Fort Collins.

But wild mule deer were discovered to be carrying the disease in and around Motherwell Ranch south of Hayden in April.

Because of the discovery, the DOW implemented a statewide system for hunters to get their killed game tested.

This hunting season, 20 animals have been discovered to carry the disease in Moffat County, which is below 1 percent of the total number tested for the disease.

Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or jnichols@craigdailypress.com.

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