A technician cuts out the lymph nodes from the bloody neck of a decapitated mule deer head, but it’s not a wildlife Halloween story.
Rather Colorado Parks and Wildlife staffer Chad Johnston is collecting samples as part of a study to determine whether chronic wasting disease has reached Southwest Colorado.
CWD is fatal for deer, and wildlife officials are attempting to track its progress. The disease has not been detected in locally, but it has been detected in the Montrose area.
This year, it is mandatory for successful deer hunters in Southwest Colorado to have their animals tested for the disease. The test is free.
Stations are set up in Dolores at the Dolores Fire Protection District Station, at the CPW office in Durango and at the fairgrounds in Pagosa Springs.
“Testing is required because CPW is working to determine the current prevalence of the fatal disease in western Colorado,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski. “Every hunter was sent a letter of the requirement, and this is a reminder to bring in the head to be tested.”
Hunters whose deer test positive will be notified via phone, email and letter.
As a precaution, CPW recommends that the meat not be consumed on deer infected with CWD, said area wildlife manager Matt Thorpe. There is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people.
Hunters must present their license and an accurate location where the animal was harvested.
GPS coordinates are best, but a map location is helpful. The head of the animal should be removed 4 inches below the lower jawbone and the base of the skull. Heads should be tested as soon as possible, preferably within five days of harvest. Heads should not be frozen.
At the Dolores testing station, hunter Garet Talley of Cortez pulled up and brought over the head of the buck he shot Saturday in the Glade.
It was cold and snowy during the hunt, he said. Deer were on the move, and he shot the deer at 218 yards.
Johnston filled out paperwork and pinpointed the map location of where it was harvested. He then got to work cutting out the lymph nodes, tonsils or brain stem. The whole process took 10 to 15 minutes, and the samples are bagged and tagged.
“I’ve done 10 today, 45 since we started,” he said. “The study provides important baseline data, and we get to hear all the hunting stories too.”
The deer heads are returned to the hunter, and the samples are sent to a lab in Fort Collins for testing.
The test was not an inconvenience for Talley.
“It’s important, they need to keep the disease under control,” he said.
For those planning to mount trophies, antlers and capes from harvested deer may be removed by hunters before submitting heads. CPW will not remove antlers or capes.
Hunters who are planning shoulder mounts should take their animals to a taxidermist before submitting the head for testing. Taxidermists or meat processors are asked to leave 4 inches of neck when removing the head.
CWD spreads through direct or indirect contact between animals. The disease agents, called prions, are present in saliva, feces and carcass parts of infected animals.
These prions also can stay in the soil for long periods of time which is why it is also very important to monitor and control herds that are infected in order to minimize long-term contamination of their ranges with CWD prions.
CWD tends to be more prevalent in bucks, said Thorpe, and it is likely spread through the rut.
If it is detected in Southwest Colorado, managers may consider an increase in buck licenses in affected areas to try and reduce the spread of the disease. That would not be popular, Thorpe said, because it could reduce the number of larger bucks favored by hunters.
“There has not been a intensive study of it here for a while. Hunters are helping to provide a statistically valid sample,” Thorpe said. “Hopefully we don’t find it here.”
Hunters are eligible for reimbursement of processing costs if their animal tests positive for CWD.
In Southwest Colorado, the Game Management Units where testing is required are: 411, 52, 521, 53, 54, 55, 60, 63,66,67,68, 70, 71,72,73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 681, 682, 711, 741, 751, 771 and 791. Submission sites and locations can be found on the CPW web site at cpw.state.co.us/cwd-locations#list