A baby elk infected with Chronic Wasting Disease. 

(Photo courtesy of Mark Zabel)

Fifty years ago, Colorado scientists made one of the first observations of a "zombie disease" affecting deer. The animals were fenced in at the Front Range Wildlife Research Center outside of Fort Collins.

Researchers watched them lose weight and their balance. In the final stages, the deer would stumble around with a vacant stare as thick saliva dripped from their mouths. Eventually, they starved to death. 

The researchers called the disorder Chronic Wasting Disease. Today, it has spread from Colorado and Wyoming to dozens of states and Canada, decimating populations of deer, elk and moose.

Dr. Mark Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, researches potential solutions. He has come up with two ideas: fires and horses. Both are a response to the deformed proteins that spread the disease, called prions.

Scientists now believe those prions can exist for decades in the soil or on plants. Fire would burn them away and the horses could eat them without any ill effects. Dr. Zabel spoke to Colorado Matter's Ryan Warner about those ideas and the threat of CWD disease.