By MIKE CORN
By focusing on northwest Kansas, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks had high hopes of getting a better handle on how widespread chronic wasting disease might be.
The effort is failing, however.
The reasons are many, with the men actually taking the samples for KDWP pointing to a crush of trophy seekers, some caring little for the meat itself, or a simple lack of concern about the disease itself as there's no evidence that it can spread from deer to humans.
"People are just not worried about it," said Francis O'Leary, one of two people in Cheyenne County who agreed to collect samples for KDWP. This year, O'Leary only pulled two samples from deer killed by hunters. Josh Moberly collected eight samples -- one from a Rawlins County deer that a bow hunter got to within 10 yards of, all the while talking on his cellular with a wildlife biologist.
There's also concern among hunters about what the agency itself will do if one deer or a number of deer are affected by the disease.
Some hunters worry KDWP will seize the animal, or worse still, embark on a killing spree much like they did in Cheyenne County in 2006 and again two years later in Decatur County.
But with fewer than 500 samples -- out of the 500 to 1,000 that had been hoped for -- Shane Hesting, KDWP's wildlife disease coordinator, is trying to determine how to gain additional samples from northwest Kansas.
At Hoxie, Paul Babcock has been told to go ahead with sampling efforts on deer taken through January, including road-kill deer. The same is true for O'Leary, who has struggled to get many samples. Even road-kills are a problem, as most have been young deer, unlikely to show any evidence of the disease, which manifests itself in older animals.
Despite a lack of numbers, the state wildlife agency is moving ahead with its efforts to monitor the always-fatal brain-wasting disease, and has already received six preliminary positive samples.
KDWP is awaiting final results from those samples, which have been sent to Iowa for more conclusive testing. Those samples came early in the process, from deer killed during archery season and from animals that were showing signs of the disease.
"We just started getting things ramped up," Hesting said of the testing process that follows the crush of samples taken during the state's firearms hunting season.
Northwest and southwest Kansas fell short of the goals that had been set, Hesting said.
At least 500 samples were needed from the nine-county northwest Kansas district to get an adequate sampling pool to measure the incidence of CWD. That focus area included Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Wallace, Logan and Gove counties -- an area that covers the epicenter of CWD in northwest Kansas. KDWP had no one in either Logan or Wallace to collect samples.
Samplers say they've had a difficult time just getting hunters to bring deer in.
Babcock said he's pulled 16 samples, and has six in the freezer.
"Quite a few from the area where they were found last year," he said of two deer that tested positive last year in eastern Sheridan County along the South Fork of the Solomon River.
Last year, Babcock pulled samples from 19 deer.
But, he said, only about 11βΡ2 miles from his home, a number of untested carcasses have been dumped unceremoniously into a creek.
"I could probably go down there right now and find six or seven carcasses," he said. "They take the cape and the skull and then throw the rest over the bridge. I think a lot of people are killing these animals for the trophy and want nothing to do with the meat."
That action creates two problems: violating state law for "wanton waste" of game, and if any of the animals are infected with CWD, the creek can provide a way to spread the disease.
"They really don't hunt for meat," Babcock said. "They hunt for the trophy."
Not everyone is that way, he said, pointing to a young man who came in recently.
"They were going to get that buck cut and put in the freezer and wait for the results," he said. "There are a lot of them out there just to kill."
Two scenarios are unfolding in Cheyenne County, were the first case of CWD in a free-ranging deer was found. One deer killed in 2008 tested positive for CWD.
O'Leary, who serves on the board of Cheyenne County Wildlife Inc. and pulled samples for KDWP for several years now, said only two deer were brought to him this year.
Last year, he tested six animals, which compares to 52 sampled when the test was mandatory.
He blames a lack of information for part of the slow response.
"I think that people are not real concerned about it," he said. "People are just not worried about it. If the fish and game wants information for this area, they just need to make it mandatory."
O'Leary understands that KDWP is struggling to pay for the sampling that would entail, but said mandatory testing is the only way possible.
"If they want the information," he said, "if they're truly interested in it, that's the only way it will happen."
Moberly, who runs Mobe's Archery west of St. Francis and is in his first year of getting samples for KDWP, thinks the reasons are much deeper.
He knows of three deer killed by hunters from North Carolina who didn't want the animals tested.
"They said if they come back positive, what are they going to do with them," he said. And they were concerned KDWP might come seize the animals.
Another person from Aurora, Colo., didn't want his deer tested out of concern that if they found too many positives, KDWP "might come back in and kill all the deer again."
In the wake of the 2005 discovery, KDWP launched a sampling program that sent its personnel out into the field at night, using spotlights to bring down 51 animals.
A similar scenario was played out in 2008 when 34 deer were killed in Decatur County.
None of the deer killed by KDWP tested positive.
Moberly said that sampling program caused considerable backlash, just as it did in Decatur County.
KDWP expects hunting etiquette from hunters, he said, "but as parks and wildlife, they went out with spotlights and shot everything that came into sight."
That alone created a sore spot for many hunters, Moberly said.
While KDWP officials have said they don't intend to go back in to an area where CWD has been found, they've left open the possibility of doing so if the disease is found in another part of the state.
"I don't think we will this year unless it shows up way, way east of the focus area," Hesting said.