Imagine being a wildlife watcher in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley or a photographer positioned at the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park or a big game hunter prowling one of greater Yellowstone’s national forests.
Out of the woods stumbles a haggard-looking elk, drool hanging from its mouth. You see the disoriented wapiti drop to the ground and die.
Should the fallen cervid be left to naturally biodegrade and provide sustenance for dozens of wildlife scavengers? Or should park rangers and state game wardens be summoned to rapidly gather up the carcass and haul it off for disposal, treating it as toxic waste?
Does this scenario sound mind-blowing?
If the dead elk (or deer or moose) is suspected of having perished from chronic wasting disease — an always fatal cousin of mad cow disease that afflicts members of the deer family — public land managers in the greater Yellowstone region may soon be scrambling to collect the dead.
Such a strategy is already part of protocols put in place by the states of Montana and Idaho should they have to deal with wildlife stricken by chronic wasting.
Wyoming is now in the middle of drafting an action plan that updates its old 2006 strategy. John Lund, regional supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish in Pinedale, says the document should be on the street within the next few weeks.
One eye-opening piece of the original draft referenced the possibility of gathering up dead diseased elk and deer from the National Elk Refuge and the state’s 22 feedgrounds — and then incinerating them.
The reason incineration is necessary and may be preferable to dumping animals in a landfill: Prions, the contorted proteins that cause chronic wasting disease, are hard to destroy. They can leach into soils and persist indefinitely if carcasses of infected animals are left to decompose on the ground.
Studies also have shown that plants springing up from contaminated soils can absorb prions and potentially infect animals that eat them. While there’s been scant evidence of any humans eating diseased animals getting sick, health officials recommend against consumption until more is known.
Two weeks ago a disease specialist with Wyoming Game and Fish contacted operators of the Teton County Trash Transfer Station south of Jackson, inquiring about the possibility of installing a furnace there to incinerate the remains of CWD-infected wildlife.
It’s sure to spark public interest, not only the potential of having the transfer station become a staging area for disposing of diseased animals, but the larger unanswered question of what it means if state and federal land managers feel they must aggressively remove carcasses tainted with chronic wasting from the field in order to prevent environmental contamination.
Last fall a whitetail deer buck shot not far from Yellowstone’s eastern border tested positive for chronic wasting, notes Lloyd Dorsey, a hunter and state director with the Sierra Club.
Dorsey adds that a mule deer that also tested positive was killed on the Wind River Indian Reservation east of elk feedgrounds in the Green River Basin.
This week Dorsey updated a map showing the progression of chronic wasting toward Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as in neighboring Montana and Idaho.
He is among a growing group of citizens, scientists, hunters and conservationists worried about the effect chronic wasting will have when it reaches the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem, which holds the most abundant and greatest diversity of big game herds in the Lower 48.
Chronic wasting disease has not yet turned up in Montana or Idaho, but it continues to march westward and north across Wyoming. During the last year alone, the geographic area in Wyoming with diseased animals has expanded more than 3.5 million acres, more than one and a half Yellowstones.
Many disease experts believe its prevalence will accelerate if it reaches Wyoming feedgrounds, which cluster animals unnaturally around artificial feed in winter and then see them disperse widely across the landscape.
You can read an overview of Dorsey’s concerns about Wyoming’s strategy at the online version of this column (JHNewsAndGuide.com). His main points: Close the feedgrounds, conserve predators that mitigate the effects of infectious diseases across the landscape, and get all animal and human health agencies to craft a comprehensive plan to address the disease.