The recent discovery of an elk infected with chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole only emphasizes the irresponsibility of maintaining “super-spreader” conditions for this lethal disease on the National Elk Refuge.

If the experience of coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that crowding spreads disease. Yet every winter the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lures thousands of elk to the refuge, where they cluster densely together along lines of alfalfa pellets spread daily by refuge staff from January to April. The crowded feedlines offer ideal conditions for spreading CWD.

While this winter will mark the first time the refuge initiates feeding with knowledge that CWD is present among Jackson Hole elk, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the disease threat posed by this program since at least 2007, when it promised to develop a so-called “Step-Down Plan” to begin a transition away from winter feeding.

Unfortunately, when the agency finally issued that plan last December after 12 years of inexplicable delay, it fell far short of meeting the urgent need for reform. The Fish and Wildlife Service identified a strategy of delaying the onset of winter feeding to teach elk to find food elsewhere but ended up punting on implementation for at least two years. Further, in response to objections from Wyoming officials who support feeding, the federal agency scaled back its proposed delay from approximately two weeks to just a few days, even though the refuge’s own former manager warned such minimal change would yield no meaningful redistribution of elk.

As the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own former chief wildlife veterinarian aptly stated after reviewing the plan, it “comes up with one idea that might help decrease reliance on supplemental feed (delay feeding onset), and hopes, maybe, it might be implemented … but maybe not. And if not, management options are not articulated.”

Now chronic wasting disease is present in Jackson Hole elk and mule deer and the refuge has no adequate response. Similar to so-called “mad cow” disease, CWD degenerates the brains of infected animals and is 100% lethal. There is no vaccine or treatment. Worse still, the infectious agent persists in vegetation and soil where afflicted animals have fed, shed body fluids or died, and it can linger for many years.

During a period when leading disease experts are impressing upon all of us the importance of social distancing to prevent infection, a government program that crowds elk together on feedgrounds under the shadow of such a disease threat is an obviously bad idea that flies in the face of science.

This program persists mostly because of a lack of commitment and creativity in addressing concerns that reducing or eliminating the refuge feeding program will create more conflicts with agriculture and sustain fewer elk to hunt. Agricultural conflicts can be mitigated through purchases of easements and installation of strategic fencing, among other measures. As for hunting, the notion that survival of wild elk requires winter feeding ignores the fact that 97% of elk in North America are not artificially fed and yet survive and reproduce, including large elk herds in Montana and Idaho.

More fundamentally, the future of elk hunting in the greater Yellowstone cannot be secured without taking steps to prevent a CWD epidemic. A CWD outbreak on the National Elk Refuge would threaten to push the Jackson Hole elk population into decline and transform the refuge itself into a contaminated disease-transmission site, both of which would reduce hunting opportunities no matter how much winter feed is distributed. Because the refuge elk disperse during summer to mingle with elk from other herds across greater Yellowstone, the refuge feeding program also threatens to become a source of CWD infection for elk throughout the region.

One of the great tragedies threatened by this situation is the prospect that the Northern Rockies tradition of the fall elk hunt, with the freezer full of meat and long-lasting family memories that it yields, could dwindle away due to hunters’ fear of contracting a lethal brain-degenerating disease from their elk steaks. Already, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department warns that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization recommend against consuming CWD-infected animals.

Fortunately, not everyone is willing to stand by and watch a wildlife-management catastrophe occur. Earlier this year, we filed a lawsuit that asks a judge to send the Fish and Wildlife Service back to the drawing board to immediately develop a legitimate, science-based plan to reform the refuge feeding program before it is too late.

Now, with CWD confirmed in Jackson Hole elk, the stakes are even higher. Time is running out to avoid a wildlife-disease disaster that could compromise the integrity of the National Elk Refuge and its iconic elk population and, ultimately, rob our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to experience a wild and healthy Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Ann Harvey is a resident of Wilson and a member of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which has joined Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club in filing a lawsuit challenging the Step-Down Plan for the National Elk Refuge winter feeding program. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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