DOW improves testing process |

DOW improves testing process

Hunters remain concerned about Chronic Wasting Disease

Jeremy Browning

The chronic wasting disease sample collection center on the outskirts of Craig is using new technology to streamline the process, and is on pace, if slightly behind, last year’s submission levels.

“Craig’s numbers are very close to being on the same submission level as last year,” said Kathy Green, DOW disease management coordinator.

The samples that reach Craig’s sampling station come from collection sites in Rangely, Meeker, Steamboat, Walden and Hot Sulphur Springs.

The sampling technicians are using handheld computers to scan the bar codes on the sample containers, syncing the information with hunting licenses in the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s database.

The manual data entry last year was one of the most time-consuming aspects of the collection process, said Brad Patch, a DOW habitat biologist.

The physical collection of the tissues for testing goes very quickly.

It takes about 45 seconds for Elissa Knox to make a V-shaped incision in the animal’s throat, locate two retropharyngeal lymph nodes, extract them and seal them in a small plastic bag. One sample will be tested while the other will be frozen for possible future research. Another technician scan’s the bar code on the sample as Knox prepares the next one.

“A team of two can easily do 150 to 200 head per day,” said Debbie Dunaway, a Craig resident who works at the sample site, surrounded by deer and elk heads in various stages of decay, some with no skin and some that have been sawed into by hunters removing antlers.

Dunaway was raised on a game preserve and she said “a little blood and guts is nothing new to me.” She is among four residents who were hired to help collect tissue samples this fall.

Last year, the DOW struggled to find locals to help out, but this year 12 applicants were from Craig, Knox said.

Knox also doesn’t seem to be bothered by the carnage, or even CWD in general.

“I know so many old-timers who live in the Fort Collins area where it’s been around for years, they’ve been eating it for years and they’re not worried,” Knox said.

And she’s quick to point out that the prions that cause CWD, which is fatal in deer and elk, has never been found in the animals’ muscle tissue.

According to Knox, the disease follows a pattern of infection throughout an animal’s body.

“The lymph nodes will be infected before the brain in most cases,” Knox said. “A lot of people still think we take the brain.”

While the DOW recommends that hunters avoid shooting deer and elk in the head, Knox said she usually is able to locate the lymph nodes even in a badly damaged head.

As far as the route of transmission, scientists still do not fully understand the mechanism, according to Kathy Green, DOW disease management coordinator. The disease is believed to be transmitted from animal to animal, Green said.

Knox is aware of studies that have placed uninfected animals in an enclosure with infected ones, with the result being transmission of the disease to the previously healthy animals.

Green said it is still too early to analyze “what the positives mean until we have the total picture.” She said there is nothing new south of I-70 nor in the data analysis units in northwest Colorado.

After the samples are collected, the leftover heads are thrown into one of two incinerators the DOW operates at its Craig sampling station. While Craig’s incinerators were approved and installed in a matter of months, similar attempts to establish incineration sites near Fort Collins have met with heavy resistance from both government officials and citizens’ groups, such as the Northern Larimer County Alliance.

The Larimer County Board of Health in October asked the DOW to look at alternate methods of disposal. In its letter to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, the board of health wrote that the DOW’s disposal proposal had become “very contentious” due to the “focus on one technology” — incineration — without considering other options, such as tissue digestion and disposal in a landfill. It also expressed concern about “prion diseases” and uncertainty surrounding their transmissibility to other species.

The board voted unanimously to recommend the Wildlife Commission withdraw the incinerator proposal.

Members of the Northern Larimer County Alliance have cited research suggesting ash escaping from incinerators may still contain live prions, since the proteins are notoriously resistant to both heat and chemical treatments.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or

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