Over the past decade or so GPS collars have allowed an unprecedented look at mule deer and elk migrations around Jackson Hole.
Long story short, these ungulates go all over the place, sometimes traveling dozens of miles through mountains to unexpected winter ranges.
In 2016 Grand Teton National Park researchers tracked individual mule deer that migrated over the Teton Range into Idaho near Ashton. Previous park studies tracked deer moving through the Gros Ventre Range to Dubois and through Yellowstone and the Teton Wilderness to winter range just west of Cody. One elk traveled from the park all the way to Heise, Idaho, at the western tip of the Big Holes. That’s nearly a 70-mile trek on foot, according to Google Maps.
In 2006 researchers documented a deer that migrated from the Pinedale Anticline all the way to the top of Snow King using a path along the Hoback River.
That particular migration, Pinedale to Jackson, is interesting because in February the Wyoming Game and Fish Department found chronic wasting disease in a Pinedale mule deer for the first time.
The addition of Pinedale to the list of CWD-infected hunt areas should probably dash any remaining hope of Jackson Hole escaping the disease. Wildlife biologists have said for years that chronic wasting disease in the Jackson elk and mule deer herds is almost certainly inevitable. We’re now one step closer to that reality.
Our dire situation is best illustrated by a good-yet-creepy map on the Game and Fish website. All the state’s CWD-positive hunt areas, regardless of species, are colored in red. The red blob consumes almost the entire state and, if you squint just right, seems to be reaching out toward northwest Wyoming. Check it out at WGFD.Wyo.gov/wildlife-in-wyoming/more-wildlife/wildlife-disease/chronic-wasting-disease/CWD-disease-info.
At this point Jackson Hole is surrounded on three sides by CWD. To the south we’ve seen diseased deer near Pinedale and Green River, and diseased deer and moose in Afton. To the east infected deer were found near Lander and Riverton, and to the northeast, Thermopolis, Meeteetse and Cody.
Overlay the Game and Fish CWD map on the Grand Teton migration map and Jackson Hole is now connected to the disease in several ways as our mule deer travel to and from their winter ranges. Chronic wasting disease is on our doorstep, if not already in the mud room.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Wyoming’s politicians continue to play Russian roulette with Jackson Hole’s feedgrounds.
Wildlife biologists strongly suspect that the crowded, dirty conditions on feedgrounds will result in higher rates of CWD transmission among elk.
Those biologists now have good evidence that the disease agent of CWD, misfolded proteins called prions, survive in the environment almost indefinitely, spread through urine and feces and infect animals when they eat contaminated feed.
You almost couldn’t design a better pathogen for the conditions on Wyoming’s feedgrounds.
A slow phaseout of elk feeding that started 10 years ago would likely have limited the prevalence of chronic wasting disease in the Jackson Elk Herd. Yes, the elk herd would be smaller, but also healthier. Now the situation is more critical.
But look further down the Game and Fish CWD webpage and you’ll find some reason for hope, at least in the short term.
Compared with mule deer, the spread of CWD in elk has progressed across Wyoming more slowly. Only about one quarter of the state contains an infected hunt area. Research on captive animals indicates that the disease is transmitted among elk less efficiently than deer.
I suppose one question is whether these mule deer on our doorstep will infect elk or keep the disease to themselves.
Otherwise we may have to wait for CWD to make its way through central Wyoming’s elk hunt areas before we see a case on the refuge.
Perhaps there’s still time after all. Or perhaps we already have CWD-infected elk and just haven’t found them yet.
In the long term, if elk feeding continues, I fear Jackson Hole will serve as a source, a hotbed, for the disease as it spreads into Yellowstone National Park, Idaho and possibly across the remaining western U.S. That’s a sad legacy for our community and our state.