Colorado was the first state in the country to detect chronic wasting disease in the 1960s, and since, state agencies have been researching how it spreads, what it does to deer and the effects on herds.
CWD deteriorates the central nervous system of deer, elk, and moose because of malfunctioning proteins, called prions. Animals can walk and live with very view visible symptoms for up to two years, at which the animal may foam at the mouth and stumble around aimlessly in its final moments before death, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The foaming and stumbling have led to some people wrongly calling it “zombie deer.”
“It’s discrediting the disease and the species as a whole because it’s a very serious issue. It’s a disease that’s killing these deer, their sick and suffering deer. It’s making light of a very serious situation,” said Cody Wigner, the assistant area wildlife manager at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office in Colorado Springs.
According to a report commissioned by CPW fro 2002-2017 and published in 2018, 57 percent of deer herds, 37 percent of elk herds and 22 percent of moose herds* were found to have animals within their groups infected with CWD.
“For the most part, it’s kind of scattered throughout the state,” said Wigner.
The first case was recorded in Fort Collins, in the 1960s and has now been found in parts of the Western Slope of the state as well as areas in the south central and eastern regions.
The report that began in 2002 relied on hunters voluntarily testing the deer they killed while hunting for CWD. Wildlife managers would track where the deer was killed, sex, and species.
“Data from hunter harvests, bringing them in and getting them tested for chronic wasting disease, that helps us build our database and all the data we can collect to get a better idea of the prevalence rates,” said Winger.
The agency says, due to more research and more media attention, concern about CWD is growing both inside the agency and out.
In the report, CPW stated concern for the health of herds as a whole as it relates to CWD. For those reasons, they have begun a new study which requires hunters in certain districts to test their kills for the disease. It started in 2018 with the northwest region of the state and in 2019 the entire eastern region, starting further west than I-25 and spanning towards the Kansas Border, hunters will be required to test their deer.
“That’s not saying there’s chronic wasting disease all over the state, it’s just getting that good reliable data to get good prevalence numbers and an idea of where it’s at,” said Wigner.
Wigner says, the study will likely last a decade or two.
CPW itself has not found any indication that the disease can transmit to humans but, do say if an animal appears sick or tests positive, it’s their recommendation to not consume the animal.