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May 2002

Mesa deer to be tested for chronic wasting disease

The herd of mule deer on the mesa will be tested for chronic wasting disease under a plan developed by UCAR and the Colorado Department of Wildlife. The wildlife department originally had proposed culling the herd to stop the spread of the disease, but UCAR officials raised objections to such an aggressive approach.

A mule deer on the mesa. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

"We have decided that, in order to be good citizens, we would allow them to monitor the herd," says John Pereira, director of Physical Plant Services. "This is a public-friendly way to go. They’re not destroying the animals."

The mesa is home to dozens of deer. Since 1997, two of them have been diagnosed with chronic wasting disease.

Under the plan, state officials will trap deer on the mesa and take tonsillar biopsies to determine whether the herd has a high rate of infection. The animals will be tagged so that state officials will be able to identify any that test positive for the disease.

Chronic wasting disease, which is found in some deer and elk herds, is a little-understood neurological disease that eventually kills the animals. Although it appears to represent minimal threat to humans, the Department of Wildlife advises hunters to avoid eating meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.

Colorado officials warn that the disease has the potential to eliminate deer and elk herds from the state in 50 years unless infected herds are culled. But some biologists, such as CU professor Charles Southwick, contend that culling may actually worsen the epidemic by eliminating resistant deer and elk along with infected animals.

Officials may need to act quickly to prevent the disease from decimating the state’s deer and elk population, warns Doug Wesley (COMET), who chairs the Northern Front Range chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving mule deer habitat and populations. "It’s clear that the disease is spreading," he says. "But there are so many unknowns from a scientific viewpoint that it’s pretty difficult to know right now what the best short-term solution is."

Boulder lies within a 15,000-square-mile region that contains infected deer and elk. Biologists are unsure whether more than 1% of deer within the city of Boulder have the disease (a 1% infection rate would be acceptable under state standards).

State officials have culled deer in the northern part of Boulder County, where the animals have found high infection rates. But John says he hopes the biopsies of the mesa deer will demonstrate that the herd is healthy and does not need to be culled. "Deer are a big part of what the mesa is all about," he says.
• David Hosansky

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Edited by David Hosansky, hosansky@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Tues May 28 17:08:40 MST 2001