Time’s up. Chronic wasting disease is now in Teton County.
Out of thousands of susceptible deer, elk and moose, an affected mule deer (found dead along the Gros Ventre Road) is likely not the only afflicted animal here.
Reporting in the Nov. 28 edition, the News&Guide quoted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department regional supervisor as saying, “Chronic wasting disease is a big enough issue for us that we’re on the fast track for finding things that we know will be effective.” That statement is symptomatic of Game and Fish’s attitude and disinclination to act in the past. It’s astonishing on several levels.
CWD has infected Wyoming cervids and relentlessly spread from herd to herd toward northwest Wyoming since the mid-1980s. No magic barriers isolate Teton County from the disease, and more specifically, the elk feedground complex and thousands of associated deer and moose.
We’ve known that deer and elk seasonally migrate into and out of Teton County, potentially mingling with infected animals to the east and south, then returning to rejoin permanently or seasonally resident herds. CWD’s arrival was always just a matter of time. Knowledgeable biologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians and others have predicted it for years.
Human and veterinary epidemiology have established that high densities of people or animals contribute to amplification of infectious diseases. That is, the more densely animals are distributed, the more animals become exposed, infected and will ultimately die.
Like brucellosis, CWD is no exception. Fenced and fed herds epitomize the worst-case scenarios. Feedgrounds will amplify CWD prevalence, just as commercial poultry farms and cattle feedlots facilitate diseases in domestic animals.
CWD is self-perpetuating under crowded conditions, which is why it is eliminated from game farms only by depopulating herds. Yet no serious effort has been made in western Wyoming to reduce elk numbers to ecological carrying capacities of habitats, concurrently eliminating the need to crowd and feed elk.
Initially only a few animals will be diagnosed with CWD in Teton County. Based on examples from Wyoming, Colorado and elsewhere, numbers will escalate as the years pass, all the faster if wildlife management strategies remain little changed.
Infectious prions persist in the natural environment. As they’re shed from infected animals, they contaminate soils and water, and are sometimes taken up by plants, consequently exposing more and more hosts. Feedgrounds will become super-contaminated. Carcasses of diseased victims will provide hot-spots for CWD transmission.
Why, then, haven’t responsible agencies taken remedial actions given the imminent arrival of CWD in Teton County? Appropriate transfer and disposal procedures and associated infrastructure should already be in place. To limit environmental contamination from potentially infected carcasses, an incinerator in Grand Teton National Park, another on the National Elk Refuge, and a third to dispose of animals that die south of Jackson are needed, and soon. These facilities could have been purchased and readied for deployment before the first diseased deer or elk reached Teton County.
An editorial in the Nov. 28 edition of the News&Guide noted that groundwater beneath the Elk Refuge serves as Jackson’s water supply. This is certainly a wild card. Should CWD prions one day be discovered to infect humans — as did the prions causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in England when nearly 200 people died from consuming infected cattle — public health repercussions could ensue.
CWD infection of valuable and cherished wildlife is a heartbreaking tragedy likely to impact the ecology and economy of northwest Wyoming, as I outlined in my 2011 book “Where Elk Roam.” Much could have been done in past years to mitigate the worst effects of CWD.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, including state and federal authorities and perhaps the citizenry of Wyoming that has taken this looming crisis too lightly. While I worked at the National Elk Refuge, past refuge managers Mike Hedrick and Barry Reiswig, and the agency’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Tom Roffe, sought to convince their superiors of the need to proactively manage for this day. They received little support.
Refuge managers likewise tried to engage the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in proactive planning and management changes. A 2007 EIS and Elk Management Plan incorporated an objective to phase out winter feeding.
Since the 1980s we’ve learned plenty about how to limit CWD’s effects on populations, even if we can’t prevent its geographical progression. The state and federal agencies that manage wildlife and habitat, and sponsor elk feedgrounds, have responsibility for implementing solutions to confront what may become an irreversible crisis.
Citizens of Wyoming have an advocacy role to play, for they have the most to lose as this disease drama unfolds. Moreover, the degree of commitment to address CWD in northwest Wyoming will necessarily affect Wyoming’s neighbors.
Left unchecked, rising numbers of infected cervids will spread CWD more rapidly and widely, impacting Idaho and Montana, including the entire Greater Yellowstone Area.
Serious action is warranted now. Will those in a position to do so finally act?