Fearful that Chronic Wasting Disease will ravage some 20,000 elk on 23 winter feedgrounds, Wyoming Game and Fish Department launched a statewide initiative Tuesday aimed at untangling a knotted management question: How to avoid disease transmission without starving the population or hurting stakeholders.

The disease that’s spread across three-quarters of the state is likely to shrink populations and turn feedgrounds into CWD hot spots if it infects elk there, a wildlife health official said. Hank Edwards, Game and Fish Wildlife Health Laboratory supervisor, made his comments at the first of four three-hour outreach webinars the agency scheduled for this week.

Game and Fish’s initiative is the first step toward addressing the CWD-feedground dilemma in a process that could take two years or more, said Scott Edberg, the agency’s deputy chief of wildlife. He was clear on one point: “We have no plans at this time of closing any feedgrounds in the near future,” he said.

Game and Fish set a Jan. 8, 2021 deadline for comment on the first phase of what it calls “a challenge we can take on.” There is no vaccine for always-fatal CWD.

Although CWD — a cousin of Mad Cow Disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease in people — hasn’t been found among elk west of the Continental Divide where the feedgrounds lie, experts believe infection among fed elk is inevitable. There is no vaccine for fatal CWD. Grand Teton National Park biologists discovered CWD in a road-killed deer in late 2018, a stone’s throw from the federal National Elk Refuge near Jackson.

Wildlife managers don’t know how quickly CWD prevalence will increase, what level of infection will affect population levels or whether predators could help limit disease spread. There’s also a question as to how hunters will react if herds are infected at a significant level.

Widespread infection, possibly boosted by artificially concentrated populations at feedgrounds and on the Elk Refuge, could impact everything from tourism to hunting and recreation. But abolishing feedgrounds would have its own repercussions, affecting elk welfare, their numbers, hunters, tourists and even ranchers who might see disease-carrying elk mingle with their cattle herds on winter feed lines. Already the disease has divided the public into pro- and anti-feedground camps.

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