Hunter submissions for chronic wasting disease testing are down for the second year in a row, according to preliminary statistics from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
At this time last year, hunters had submitted 1,000 more elk heads than have been submitted this year to the Craig DOW warehouse. The elk are tested for CWD, a neurological disease found in deer and elk that causes infected animals to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die.
The DOW has found no cases of CWD in areas where the disease was not previously known to exist.
Preliminary estimates indicate this year's hunting season has been at least as successful as 2003, DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. That leaves the DOW at a loss to explain the decline in submissions.
"Why that is, we don't know. There's certainly less press coverage nationally and internationally," Malmsbury said.
But the hunters who are submitting animals for testing are doing so for different reasons than in other years, said Debbie Dunaway, a biologist at the Craig warehouse.
With three other biologists, Dunaway has been cutting the lymph nodes from the severed heads of the elk and mule deer that hunters submit for testing. The biologists bag and tag the lymph nodes before shipping them to Fort Collins for testing.
Dunaway thinks local hunters are bringing in animals for testing because they are concerned about the health of big game herds, and they want the DOW to have as much information as possible to research the disease.
In previous years, she said hunters submitted their kills because they worried their meat was contaminated.
"It's sportsmen taking care of their sport," Dunaway said.
"Our whole economy, if not coal, it's hunting. So a lot of Craig residents who bring their animals in are interested in the research we're doing," she said.
Statewide as of Thursday, hunters had submitted 5,066 elk heads, 47,083 mule deer heads, 106 whitetail deer heads, and 99 moose heads for testing. All those numbers are down from last year.
While elk submissions are down in Craig, mule deer submissions have increased by 24.
On the Eastern Slope, where the DOW thinks CWD has existed for decades, 33 deer and three elk tested positive for CWD. On the Western Slope, where DOW thinks the disease has existed for no more than 10 years, 10 deer and six elk have tested positive.
CWD has never been found in southern Colorado, and submissions have been low in that part of the state, Malmsbury said.
The DOW may continue to waive the fee in certain locations next year, Malmsbury said. Division employees also may visit hunting camps and game checking stations to encourage hunters to submit animals for testing. But the DOW has no plans to make deer and elk testing mandatory.
Only moose testing is mandatory, and CWD has never been found in a moose.