State to limit survey of CWD's advance
Testing in Jackson and “anywhere along the front edge” of the disease remains unchanged.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 25, 2012
Despite a 65 percent funding cut, Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials are confident that the state’s surveillance program for a deadly cervid disease will remain effective.
The cut, derived from both the loss of a $215,000 federal grant and $80,000 reduction in state funds, most significantly affects areas where chronic wasting disease is already prevalent and testing will be phased out.
Because local surveillance funds come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testing of the Jackson Hole elk herd is only projected to be affected in terms of the lag in getting sample results back, Game and Fish officials said.
“Our sampling in the Jackson area isn’t going to change,” Jackson District Game and Fish feedground biologist John Henningsen said. “And the sampling scheme in the Pinedale region doesn’t really change either.”
Jackson District Game and Fish gets $27,000 in USFWS funds annually to pay for two seasonal technicians plus vehicle and equipment costs, Henningsen said. That covers testing on the National Elk Refuge, three state feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre valley and six others to the south of Jackson, he said.
Chronic wasting disease, basically a misfolded brain protein that causes weight loss, listlessness and the loss of body control, has never been detected in Jackson Hole moose, deer or elk. Nonetheless, CWD has slowly progressed across Wyoming toward Jackson Hole for years.
Money shifts to disease front
CWD is now found in mule deer as near as the Thermopolis area, Game and Fish maps show. The agency has trumpeted its testing efforts in recent years, partly in response to fears of catastrophic consequences if the disease were to reach Jackson Hole’s feedground-dependent and artificially concentrated elk herds.
Critics say the state should phase out winter feeding of elk, not just track the disease’s advance.
On the state level, the $305,000 in lost funds all went toward personnel expenses and test kits for field testing, Game and Fish’s Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said.
The $160,000 in remaining funding will go toward testing near Pinedale, Thermopolis, Rock Springs and “anywhere along the front of wherever the edge of CWD is,” Game and Fish wildlife veterinarian Terry Kreeger said. Testing in these areas will remain at the same levels as in past years, he said.
In the 2011 hunt season, 3,273 deer, elk and moose samples were analyzed for CWD, a Game and Fish fact sheet said. Of 109 positive tests, 81 were samples from mule deer, 16 from white-tailed deer and 12 from elk.
The disease moved into one new hunt area — deer hunt area 165 in the Big Horn Basin.
The program was designed to provide a 99 percent probability of detecting CWD if it existed at 1 percent prevalence, the fact sheet said. Neither Nesvik or Kreeger would take a guess at the effectiveness of the new program.
“We’ll strive to continue that kind of confidence interval,” Nesvik said.
“Roadkills are a great opportunity, because some of the scientists that work with CWD believe there’s at least a chance that CWD is more likely in road-killed animals,” he said. “We’re also going to gain efficiencies and use the brucellosis people to also test for CWD.”
Bruce Smith, a former National Elk Refuge biologist, said that Game and Fish has it right to target the disease’s leading edge.
“There’s lots of opportunity for the disease to move in from the periphery, and that’s where you’d want to do the testing,” Smith said from his home in Sheridan, Mont. “Maybe the most important area in the Jackson Hole area is the Gros Ventre. By the time [CWD] gets into the refuge, it’s already in the Gros Ventre.”
Smith, who recently authored the book “Where Elk Roam,” said studies conducted during his tenure on the refuge found that there were “potentially 1,000 animals” moving from CWD areas into disease-free areas.
“Even if they only do it seasonally, they may intermingle with animals that are infected,” he said.
Because Game and Fish’s program is just surveillance and doesn’t measure prevalence -or include an action plan, Smith downplayed the significance of the CWD funding cuts.
“As earnest as the efforts are to pick up the disease, the reality is that all you can do is find out if it’s there and already established,” he said. “And of course with CWD, it’s there and isn’t going away.
“There are a lot of questions,” Smith said. “We really don’t know when it will arrive in Western Wyoming. We don’t know the rate at which it will spread or if it will move in from the north or south or east.”
Nesvik, discussing the threat of CWD to feedground-dependent animals, emphasized that uncertainty.
“I know that in Jackson it’s a big issue, and people are awfully concerned about it,” Wyoming’s chief game warden said. “There’s no information out there to indicate, at least in elk, that CWD has large-scale population effect.
“With elk, one other thing that you just can’t avoid — regardless of where they are — is that they’re a herd animal in winter,” he said. “That’s just the way elk behave.”
Eliminating the feedground system is “not the silver bullet” in terms of solving the CWD-elk problem, Nesvik said. Researchers have made headway on a vaccination, he said.