In December highly dreaded news hit: Chronic wasting disease has reached western Wyoming’s elk.
Of particular concern is that more than 20,000 elk in Jackson Hole, Star Valley and the Green River Basin gather tightly over lines of hay and pelleted alfalfa for months each winter. These artificial congregations on feedgrounds have been a part of the landscape for a century and serve a purpose, keeping animals alive through the winter and away from highways, haystacks meant for cattle, and our homes.
Yet staying the course is now reckless.
Let’s not fool ourselves about the gravity of CWD in feedground elk.
A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, CWD is neither viral nor bacterial but rather spread by a misformed protein called a prion. Prions travel from animal to animal through contact but also through the landscape itself, surviving for years in the soil.
Once the infectious agents have established on the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds, there will be no getting rid of them. It’s problematic to concentrate thousands of elk in these same areas year after year over feed, a practice that increases elk contact rates by 2.6 times, according to refuge research. The formula is in place for a “zombie-apocalypse kind of scenario,” as the refuge’s former manager, Brian Glaspell, put it.
So far, federal and state agencies have lacked the will to heed science and take any meaningful steps to avert such an outcome.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is starting down the road of creating an elk feedground management plan, but the director has already indicated there’s “no real potential” to change feeding operations for years to come. The refuge is experimenting with shortening the feeding season, a move that should be applauded and accelerated.
This catastrophe has been decades in the making, with science clearly warning of the dire consequences.
Wildlife managers should have started weaning elk off artificial feed years ago. An incinerator capable of destroying prions should have been built by now to properly dispose of infectious carcasses, which otherwise risk becoming deadly reservoirs of disease scattered across the landscape.
In places where CWD is now entrenched, some hunters have given up on hunting because their animals come back CWD-positive too often while others risk eating infected meat, another recipe for disaster.
For the good of the elk and the future of hunting, wildlife managers need to move beyond wishful thinking.
Take bigger steps to shorten, and then eliminate, the feeding season. Help ranchers fence haystacks to keep elk out. Educate the community to build tolerance for more elk on highways, in yards and on ranches. Plan and fund an incinerator.
Those changes won’t sit well with everyone, especially ranchers and hunting outfitters, but bold leadership is needed to avoid gravely risking the health of our elk herds.