Colorado’s wildlife agency looks to hunters to manage chronic wasting disease

In an effort to keep deer, elk and moose herds healthy and reduce human exposure, Colorado’s wildlife agency is preparing to renew efforts to track, then tackle, one of its greatest wildlife management challenges — chronic wasting disease.

“About half of Colorado’s deer herd and about a third of Colorado’s elk herd are infected,” says Colorado Parks & Wildlife Terrestrial Section Manager Craig McLaughlin.

CWD belongs to a family of rare, progressive neurodegenerative disorders called prion diseases — transmissible spongiform encephalopathies — that affect both humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The same source states that the transmissible pathogens induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins, found most abundantly in the brain. This abnormal folding leads to brain damage that is almost always fatal.

To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infections in humans.

“CWD has reared its ugly head again and is now a real issue nationwide,” says Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook, who is also part of the CWD advisory group — stakeholders tasked with bringing ideas and public support to wildlife managers.

Recent sampling research has shown the prevalence of the diseases in some parts of Northwest Colorado has increased from about 1 to 2 percent in early 2002 through 2004 to an average of 15 percent in 2017.

Complete elimination of the disease will not be possible until researchers develop ways to remove prions from the environment.

Management will focus on deer, due to the higher prevalence of the disease in that species, McLaughlin says, adding that this should minimize the spread of the disease and secure long-term sustainability of deer herds.

Hunter harvest will be the primary management tool, and that likely means increasing the number of bucks killed by offering more, or redistributing, licenses available for each hunting season.

In addition to management prescriptions, mandatory testing for the disease will rotate to different areas of the state on a 3- to 5-year cycle, so herds are sampled regularly.

In 2018, mandatory testing will be deployed across four mule deer herd units — the Bears Ear, the Middle Park, the State Bridge and the Grand Mesa herds. In Northwest Colorado, this will affect hunters participating in second, third and fourth rifle seasons in Game Management Units 3, 4, 5, 14, 214, 301, 421, 18, 27, 28, 37, 181 and 371.

Voluntary testing will continue to be offered to all hunters for deer or elk for $25 per animal. This fee will be waived in the White River herd area — game management units 11, 12, 13, 23, 24, 22, 211, 131 and 231 — to encourage testing in an area of high CWD prevalence.

For more complete information, see the CPW 2018 Colorado Big Game Hunting Regulations.

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or