The Wyoming Department of Transportation workers’ first attempt at winching the road-killed elk onto their flatbed sent the dull scent of rot into the air, but the cow’s quarter-ton carcass wasn’t on the right trajectory.
“Roll her,” WYDOT crew leader Richard Wilson told his colleague Shirley Weerhein.
The flip worked. Rigor-mortis-locked legs now pointing south, she was in the right position. Up the makeshift plywood ramp she winched.
It was early afternoon Tuesday, and snow-covered Beaver Mountain and Bryan Flats provided the background of the unsavory highway shoulder scene, a familiar one to the two-person WYDOT crew. The foreground was the cow elk, which had sustained a compound-fractured lower leg and evidently lethal internal injuries. Though one of hundreds of road-killed ungulates winched off of Teton County’s highways and roads annually, the cow was the first unfortunate animal WYDOT handled that day. Like all the rest she was hauled to the carcass pit carved from the bottom of Horsethief Canyon.
That pit, part of a larger landfill, is officially closing — and soon. Because of groundwater contamination the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality ordered the old landfill excavated and capped, and no later than 2019.
That is where chronic wasting disease comes in.
Teton County’s trash is now being sent to a Bonneville County, Idaho, landfill, but Wyoming’s western neighbor — for now uninfected with the lethal ungulate sickness — is no longer accepting the community’s carcasses. Come next summer the fate of the potential disease vectors laid to waste by Jackson Hole traffic is unknown.
And for now, nobody is spearheading the effort to come up with a solution.
“There’s a good possibility they may lay where they get hit if we don’t have a place to take them,” WYDOT foreman Bruce Daigle said.
The agencies and local governments reached for this story were all unclear on who’s legally responsible for disposing of roadkill, a major chunk of the 30 to 40 annual tons of wild game carcasses Teton County’s Trash Transfer Station has handled historically.
Critics say the confusion illustrates the point that land and wildlife managers were caught flat-footed when chronic wasting disease, or CWD, was detected for the first time in Teton County. Disposing of carcasses is just one small part of managing the long-dreaded disease, which can depress wildlife populations, has no cure and cannot be realistically removed from the landscape.
CWD’s presence here was confirmed Nov. 19, when the second batch of laboratory tests came back from a mule deer buck that was struck and killed on Gros Ventre Road near Kelly. On-the-ground management has changed little since then, though federal and state agencies have taken measures like stepping up surveillance, mandating that hunters test their harvest and requiring that animal parts headed to the carcass dump go in a bag.
Teton County has so far been facilitating the discussion about a long-term solution to the carcass conundrum, but its staffers are questioning whether that’s truly their job.
“Statutorily, the county is responsible for municipal solid waste,” Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Supervisor Heather Overholser said. “Wild game carcasses are not included in that. Domestic carcasses are.”
“The way I understand it, if there’s roadkill on the side of the road an individual can’t pick it up and take it because it belongs to Game and Fish,” Overholser said. “WYDOT has assumed responsibility of picking up carcasses along the roadside, but whether or not they’re required to do that statutorily, I do not know.”
Daigle’s interpretation is that his employer has been voluntarily helping out its state government cousin by picking up roadkill but that it’s not WYDOT’s job to figure out where it goes.
The favored disposal method identified by Overholser is for the community to build a large incinerator that can burn over 1,000 degrees, hot enough to destroy the hardy misfolded brain proteins called “prions” that spread CWD. Ideally, she has said, that facility would be large enough to handle a region’s worth of roadkill, potentially even receiving carcasses for Sublette and Lincoln counties.
It remains to be seen where such an incinerator would go, or which agency or government would operate it.
“I may be speaking out of turn,” Daigle said, “but to me Game and Fish needs to get more involved and find a piece of property somewhere.”
Brad Hovinga, the head of Game and Fish’s Jackson Region, saw it differently.
“There isn’t anybody that feels like they have jurisdiction over disposal of carcasses,” Hovinga said. “We’ve never assumed responsibility for carcass disposal. We’ve never had that responsibility.”
Wyoming’s chief game warden, Brian Nesvik, said there are “multiple responsibilities” when it comes to cleaning up carcasses. Game and Fish, he said, has the responsibility to regulate transportation of carcasses to prevent the spread of diseases, but he pointed the finger at WYDOT for other duties.
“If there’s roadkill and it’s on a Wyoming highway, there’s a law that indicates the highway department [WYDOT] is responsible for it,” Nesvik said. “We certainly don’t think that we bear all the responsibility to solve this problem.”
In eastern Wyoming, where chronic wasting disease has had a grip on deer and elk herd for decades, carcasses go to the dump. Public incinerators, Nesvik said, are not yet a thing in the Equality State.
“I think at the end of the day,” Nesvik said, “there’s going to have to be some kind of a solution that people come to collaboratively in a place like Teton County, where they don’t have a landfill.”
Game and Fish is interested in partnering in a problem-solving project like an incinerator, he said, and may even be able to free up some cash to help with its purchase and operation.
Federal land and wildlife managers seem to be on the same page, though none with a presence in the valley is offering to take the lead.
National Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell consulted with his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leadership and confirmed that an incinerator is the “best solution” in the agency’s view.
“We recognize that we’d have a significant role to play,” Glaspell said. “I said to the county commissioners that we’ve got $100,000 in the bank right now to make a token down payment, but there will be more to come.”
In the meantime, elk that turn up dead on the refuge this winter will be dealt with as they always have: They will be hauled to the open-air carcass dump, picked at by scavengers and allowed to decompose.
It’s the same story in Grand Teton National Park: Dead critters are going to the historic dumps. The short-term plan, wildlife chief Dave Gustine said, is to develop a “hold-and-test protocol,” which would be enabled by a large walk-in freezer to hold carcasses.
“It has not been ordered yet,” he said, “but we’re hoping to have it functional by late spring, early summer.”
Long term, Gustine said, the goal is to partner with the other land and wildlife managers on a solution that would satisfy everybody’s needs.
At least one private business — Matt’s Custom Meats, the valley’s last-remaining wild game processor — could be caught in the crossfire of the dispute over whose job it is to responsibly discard of potentially infectious wildlife carcasses. Matt Froehlich, the owner, generates 800 to 1,200 pounds of waste a day during peak hunting season, and he’s not about to chance having it all pile up. So he’s thinking of taking matters into his own hands.
“I have to find something for my waste,” Froehlich said. “I’m hoping by this time next year ... that I’ll have an incinerator here, and I’ll just incinerate my bones and my waste.”
Back at the transfer station Dan Randall did the deed of burying the stricken cow elk that WYDOT had winched off the roadside an hour before. His rig, a Lull 844-C “telehandler,” took just a couple of scoops of soil to bury the cow’s remains, which registered a hefty 580 pounds on the transfer station’s scales.
While that poundage will decompose for years to come at the mouth of Horsethief Canyon, next year’s road-killed elk, deer and moose likely await a different, untold fate.