Russell George jumps from the frying pan into the fire
Russ George has focused his energy on conflicts between bears and humans and stopping the spread of chronic wasting disease.
George, a Rifle native and former Speaker of the House, was appointed as director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife in September 2000. He spoke to a Kiwanis Club meeting Tuesday in Glenwood Springs.
“I was in the House for eight years, that’s four terms. That was fine with me,” he said.
As it turns out, his experience in the legislature was good training for his job at DOW.
“I’m living proof that a politician can jump from the frying pan into the fire,” he said.
The issues DOW is dealing with these days, such as growing conflicts between bears and humans and controlling chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, have made the agency “more controversial than I’d like it to be,” he said. “We’re trying to lower the level of debate.”
George has made some trips back to his old stomping grounds in the statehouse to defend Colorado wildlife.
“When the legislature is in session, it’s a damn nightmare. If the constituency is not happy with (my) decisions, they go to their legislators,” he said. “I do a lot of defensive work at the legislature. They introduce bills to manage wildlife and I say, we have experts at DOW, we should let them manage wildlife.”
Case in point, George said, is the growing human and bear conflicts.
In 1992, state voters passed a citizen initiative, Amendment 10, that outlawed the spring bear hunt.
“It took the tools away from wildlife managers,” George said. “Now there’s a huge battle brewing in the legislature” over whether or not to reinstate the spring hunt.
George said DOW will not take a position on any legislation.
“I’ve managed to make everybody mad,” he laughed.
But he said he believes the legislature will not bring back the spring hunting season.
Although he defended hunting in general as “the very best management tool we have to regulate wildlife and keep populations in balance,” he believes more hunting seasons are not the answer to solving the bear problem.
Chronic wasting disease
DOW is also wrestling with chronic wasting disease, a fatal and untreatable illness that initially affected wild deer and elk herds in northeastern Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. That is called the “endemic area,” where the disease appears to always be present.
Even more worrisome to DOW is the fact that the disease has been found in domestic herds of deer and elk in Colorado.
Although chronic wasting disease is not known to affect humans, it is part of a family of diseases called spongiform encephalopathies, which include sheep scrapie and mad cow disease. A variant that affects humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, was linked to the outbreak of mad cow disease in Great Britain.
George estimated the disease occurs in about five percent of the deer and one percent of elk in northeastern Colorado, although new hot spots have been identified in the endemic area where 15 percent of the animals are infected.
“We’re also seeing it go up into Wyoming, and now Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota and this week, Wisconsin,” he said.
During the last four years approximately 4,000 deer and elk have been tested outside the endemic area, including the Piceance Basin, and none were infected.
“It’s critical to me that we not let chronic wasting disease get in those herds,” he said.
He also said the disease appears to spread more quickly in white tail deer, which populate eastern Colorado, than in the less social mule deer.
Since chronic wasting disease was identified in a domestic elk herd in Colorado last fall, DOW’s concerns about the spread of the disease have risen accordingly.
“It causes animal health concerns, but there’s also a huge political struggle,” George said.
DOW has ordered the destruction of some domestic herds in which animals have tested positive for the disease.
“Producers say it is destroying their industry,” George said.
DOW’s business is not just about hunting and fishing anymore. As Colorado’s population grows, there is more pressure on animal species. In fact, 80 species of animal in the state concern DOW, he said.
“If we don’t be careful, we’ll lose them,” he said.
Those species include the bald eagle, the black-footed ferret, and the black-tailed prairie dog on the eastern plains.
“We as humans have no right, as long as we’re on the Earth, to cause extinction,” he said. “If we don’t do something, they’ll face extinction.”
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