By Joe Lewandowski
Special to Delta County Independent
No cases of Chronic Wasting Disease in deer were found in the Gunnison Basin during the 2020 deer season, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife will continue to closely monitor area big game herds.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, last hunting season, required hunters to submit for CWD testing harvested mule deer bucks. Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose.
“This is positive news,” said Kevin Blecha, terrestrial biologist in CPW’s Gunnison office. “But given the way our local deer and elk move to neighboring herds, we still need to keep CWD on our radar.”
The disease has been found in mule deer in units to the north, east and west of the Gunnison Basin. Statewide, infection rates are growing. CWD has been found in at least 40 of Colorado’s 54 identified deer herds and 16 of 43 elk herds. Disease prevalence rates tend to be higher for bucks. Gunnison Basin deer herds have some of the highest buck-to-doe ratios in the state at approximately 40 bucks per 100 does.
While CWD was not found in the game management units of the basin – 54, 55, 551, 66 and 67 – it was found in the North Fork area on the Grand Mesa in GMUs 411, 52 and 521. Across those units a total of 224 harvested deer were tested with 16 positives for an overall prevalence rate of approximately 7%. Bucks sampled had a higher prevalence rate of about 8% compared to 5% in does.
“On the face of it the prevalence might look low, but CWD is 100 percent fatal and we don’t want to see it continue to increase in our herds,” said Scott Wait, senior terrestrial biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region. “CWD infections are higher in males than females. If we want healthy herds we need to use reasonable management to keep it in check.”
Gunnison Area Wildlife Manager Brandon Diamond explained further: “In a worst-case scenario, CWD left unchecked within a big game herd is likely to foster an increasing prevalence rate. At high prevalence, CWD may reduce the overall population and prevent animals from surviving to older age classes. This in turn may reduce hunter opportunity, as well as impede long-term management flexibility. In Gunnison, we’re all celebrating last fall’s test results. But looking long-term our local big game herds are too important to us as a community not to take CWD seriously.”
Statewide, monitoring for CWD is a major priority for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The Colorado Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan was established in 2019 and it requires that testing in specific areas occur every five years. The results of those testing efforts are intended to help inform management in local geographic areas, which includes consideration for overall management objectives and hunting-license allocation.
During the 2021 deer season, testing will be mandatory for hunters who harvest deer in Game Management Units 411, 52 and 521. Testing will also be mandatory for elk on the south Grand Mesa during specific rifle seasons. Hunters should review the 2021 big-game brochure to determine if the unit and season they are hunting has a mandatory CWD-testing requirement. There will be no charge for mandatory testing. Hunters who draw tags in those units will be informed of testing details this summer.
Hunters can also bring in their deer for voluntary testing for $25.
“Voluntary testing is very helpful to our monitoring efforts because it ensures that we acquire some data every year,” Diamond said. “We certainly encourage hunters to bring in animals for voluntary testing. The more samples we receive, the more we can keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening within our deer and elk herds.”
Gunnison residents are also asked to report to the Gunnison office if they see deer or elk that appear to be sick. The phone number is 970-641-7060. Deer and elk are prone to a variety of illnesses, some of which may be fatal. Although it may not be CWD, CPW is interested in animals that are obviously sick or exhibiting CWD-like symptoms. Those symptoms may include severe weight loss, lack of coordination, drooling and no fear of people.
Although there is no proof that humans can contract CWD by eating the meat of an infected animal, CPW and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommend that the meat not be consumed.
To learn more about CPW’s chronic wasting disease response plan, go to: cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/ResearchCWD.aspx.