elk STOCK

PINEDALE – A newly appointed statewide chronic wasting disease working group won’t address disease-transmission at elk feedgrounds, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department regional supervisor said last week.

The 32-member panel appointed by Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik in April will recommend revisions to the agency’s CWD management plan by March 2020. It will meet for the first time July 23-25 in Lander to address the always-fatal cervid disease, a cousin of mad cow disease and the degenerative Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease among humans. (See the members’ names below.)

The group won’t have one of the most contentious CWD issue on its plate — 22 Game and Fish winter elk feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide. About 21% of Wyoming elk gather on feedgrounds in winter, according to WyoFile calculations made from Game and Fish data, worrying some that CWD will run rampant when it arrives.

“Dealing with the feedground issue could weigh down the statewide group,” Brad Hovinga, Jackson regional Game and Fish supervisor, told WyoFile last week. He outlined that sentiment to a group of approximately 50 persons at a meeting in Pinedale on June 4.

Instead, Game and Fish is considering forming a separate, more localized group that would address elk feedgrounds. That would occur “after this [statewide] process,” Hovinga told those at the Pinedale meeting. “We want to start it soon,” he later told WyoFile about a potential examination of feedgrounds.

Game and Fish is “not trying to minimize what the potential effects of CWD on elk feedgrounds are,” Hovinga said in an interview. The agency recognizes feedgrounds “will likely exacerbate the disease problem,” because they concentrate animals artificially to the point diseases can be transmitted more easily.

Today, however, “the biggest [CWD] threat is to deer, not to elk,” he said. “CWD is expanding differently in elk than it is in deer.”

Game and Fish has found CWD in deer in about 70% — 91 of 129 — of the state’s deer hunt areas, according to WyoFile calculations made from Game and Fish maps. Those hunt areas cover almost the entire eastern half of the state and most of the northwest quarter. Game and Fish also found CWD in deer and a moose in a few areas west of the Continental Divide, including Grand Teton National Park (where deer hunting is not allowed).

Among elk, in contrast, Game and Fish has detected CWD in elk in about 20% of — 22 of 106 — elk hunt areas. All are east of the Continental Divide where the agency operates no feedgrounds.

Game and Fish personnel in the Pinedale meeting painted a bleak picture of the mysterious and insidious ailment. Infected animals wither and die. A misshapen protein or prion causes the malady, for which there is no known cure or vaccine. Infection rates among deer can run near 40% in some areas. One study concluded that CWD causes mule deer population declines of 19 percent annually and predicts virtual extirpation of an infected herd.

CWD is believed to be concentrated in nervous tissue, like brains and spinal columns. It is transmitted through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine. While there is no strong evidence CWD can be transmitted from cervids to humans, research on monkeys suggest it can jump to primates. Monkeys may have contracted CWD by consuming muscle meat.

But deformed prions can be shed into the environment, creating persistent contamination. Plants can take it up in their roots and leaves. In experiments, mice fed on such infected vegetation have become infected with CWD, Game and Fish Wildlife Veterinarian Mary Wood said in her presentation. Predators may key in on infected animals, she said. While predators don’t become infected themselves, prions can pass through their digestive tracts.

CWD also is persistent, Game and Fish personnel said at Pinedale.

“It will continue to increase in distribution and prevalence,” agency wildlife disease specialist Hank Edwards said. Game and Fish finds CWD in about five new deer herds in Wyoming each year. It spreads among animals’ “social groups.” There is no indication of a long-term decrease, he said.

“It’s probably here to stay,” Edwards told the Pinedale group. But CWD is not expected to cause extinction, he said.

“Nothing happens quickly with Chronic Wasting Disease,” Wood said in Pinedale. Any solution or program “we’re going to need to apply long-term … with public support.”

Wyoming could learn from other states’ programs that have sought to limit or eliminate the disease. Minnesota and New York launched early and aggressive killings of deer that initially seemed successful. But CWD re-emerged in Minnesota in 2016.

Wisconsin increased hunting plus culling unsuccessfully. The effort was intolerable to the public and not sustainable.

“The disease was already well-established,” Wood said. “They lost a lot of trust from the public.”

Illinois undertook “focused density reduction” of white-tailed deer, Wood’s presentation showed. That cut down deer populations soon after detection — “a prolonged culling program where they believe those deer existed,” Wood said.

That kept CWD infection rates between 1% and 3% and minimized its spread. “They believe they’re having an effect,” Wood said.

Colorado cut some mule deer populations by 25% through harvest and culling, Wood’s presentation showed. Although it abandoned the program after not seeing early results, 10 years later CWD prevalence was reduced. “They do believe they’re having an impact on prevalence,” Wood said.

An urban Colorado test-and-slaughter program targeted half a selected mule deer population annually. It showed a trend toward reduced CWD prevalence in males.

“They didn’t see really strong results,” Wood said. The effort was challenging and expensive.

Alberta identified infected deer populations during fall hunts then culled those groups in winter. Public outrage shut the program down, Wood said.

Even though the Canadian province suspended the program in 2009, it appeared to minimize the prevalence and minimize, but not eliminate, the spread of CWD, Wood’s presentation showed.

Programs will require 5-10 years of consistent management before they would be found effective, she said. If the public is not on board from the start, experiences in other areas show efforts will be shut down.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recommends regulating the disposal of game carcasses. Natural urine, feces or other cervid materials should not be moved around, it says. Wildlife managers should implement strategic surveillance and monitoring for CWD, the group says.

The Western Association Fish and Wildlife Agencies promotes adaptive management. “What works in one area may not work in another area,” Wood said while outlining WAFWA’s recommendations.

Increased hunting should be directed at herd segments most likely to be CWD positive, the Western association recommends.

Wildlife managers should “restrict” feeding, WAFWA says. Reducing artificial concentrations of wildlife includes artificial sources of water and minerals — like salt blocks — as well as food, according to the association.

Feedgrounds “certainly [are] a concern for us,” Hovinga said. Feedgrounds “will likely exacerbate the disease problem,” he said in an interview.

“We’ve decided in our discussions internally the whole feedground issue and feedground management … is big enough it should have its own process.”

Feedgrounds exist only in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. He outlined how the topic will be tackled.

“It’s a process that deals with a localized area,” he said. “We’re in the process of developing what that will look like. It’s in its infancy.

“We’re still looking at representation on a state level. There will be some connection with the statewide group. We certainly need influence from [the] Department of Agriculture and Governor’s office.”

Game and Fish has found CWD in deer and moose west of the Continental Divide and in all three feedground counties. One infected deer was found in Grand Teton National Park on a road that passes a stone’s throw from the National Elk Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides supplemental feed for some 7,000 elk each winter at the refuge.

CWD has not yet been found in feedground elk.

“Game and Fish officials believe CWD will arrive in elk at feedgrounds in the future,” the Jackson region said in a statement earlier this year. “Game and Fish is concerned about how CWD’s arrival on feedgrounds will affect elk populations in western Wyoming.

Wyoming has been feeding elk for more than 100 years, the agency wrote. “Feedgrounds maintain elk population objectives while also maximizing separation of elk from cattle to prevent property damage and minimize brucellosis transmission to cattle,” the Jacksons region wrote. Feeding also keeps them off highways.

Wyoming’s elk feedground budget was $2.3 million in fiscal year 2017, according to a presentation to the Wyoming Game and Fish commission in 2017. The agency buys between 6,000 and 9,000 tons of hay annually. In the winter of 2016-2017, feeders doled out hay to 15,341 wapiti. On the National Elk Refuge, workers supply alfalfa pellets to an additional 6,000 to 7,000 elk, bringing the statewide total to somewhere near 22,000 animals on feed each winter.

The agency estimated more than 104,800 elk populated the state in January 2018, a count taken before the annual crop of newborns. That’s 31% above Wyoming Game and Fish Department objectives. WyoFile calculates 21% of Wyoming’s elk congregate on feedgrounds or the National Elk Refuge in the winter.

Wyoming will shift to statewide monitoring of wildlife instead of testing at the geographic leading edge of infections to identify CWD’s spread. It will concentrate on two herd units a year in each region, seeking to obtain statistically significant sample sizes.

Pinedale participants recommended the department increase education about CWD. They said hunters should be used in any program and licenses should be reissued to those whose deer or elk test positive.

Participants called for imposition of standards for big game processors and tests of urban deer population. Predators’ effects on populations should be considered and cost-benefit analyses of any program conducted, among other things.

In the meantime hunters should not kill thin or obviously sick animals, Edwards said. Hunters should wear rubber gloves when field dressing big game.

In areas known to harbor CWD, hunters should have their animal tested – even before butchering. Quarter and freeze game meat until test results are in, Edwards suggested. Only after receiving CWD test results should one butcher or process an animal.

Disinfect knives by submerging them for an hour in a 50% bleach solution, he said. The process corrodes the metal, however.

“It’s the equivalent to burying it in the garden for 40 years,” Edwards said.

Game and Fish is gearing up to test 15,000 animals a year. The Wyoming State Veterinarian’s lab will test samples within 10 days of receipt at a cost of $30.

“We don’t make human health recommendations,” Wood told the group. The federal Centers for Disease Control writes that hunters should not eat meat from animals that test positive for CWD and makes other handling and processing recommendations.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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