Elk count

A group of elk move along the southern end of the National Elk Refuge in February 2018. Refuge officials were conducting their annual count to determine the approximate size of the Jackson Elk Herd.

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?

Bruce Smith served as the National Elk Refuge’s biologist from 1982 to 2004. He now lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he works to promote conservation of wildlife and wildlands. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

(24) comments

Daryl Hunter

Oops, correction last sentence, We humans are pretty thick!

Daryl Hunter

Around 2001 I visited often with a guy who was doing an environmental impact study on how to stop the feeding of elk at the refuge and restore historical migrations patterns of before the settlers.

Back then we knew CWD was coming and it was gong to decimate the New York City of the elk world, the National Elk Refuge upon its arrival. This biologist was frustrated because he knew his study would go nowhere until it was too late because of politics.

It is unnatural to have six too eight thousand elk clustered up together and as is known with the historical precedent of brucellosis, disease spreads quickly in crowd situations like this.

The biologist said; nobody is willing to stop feeding at the refuge, so it is politically impossible despite how important it is to restore normal behavior.

He went on, the town of Jackson and associated businesses use the elk numbers for marketing, outfitters sell sleigh rides, everybody like to look at them; hence, nobody is willing to upset the apple cart. The conclusion being, a solution won’t happen until after ¾ of the elk have a mass die off. Only then will the public understand the problem.

I also like having all those elk out there; however, I like nature more.

We humans are pretty think.

Ken Chison

Daryl. Your post is interesting, but you never told us how we would be able to return the historical migration patterns. Looking at the bottle neck from the airport, thru Jackson, or thru Wilson, I don't really know where else they would go. Elk are downhill migrators, and, guess what? Jackson is a wall. Remember too, this was an opinion piece. Less not forget where CWD was first found either. I remember seeing the archived story of Colorado injecting sheep wirh The scrapie prion in the early 60s. All in all though, the number of animals infected in all the US or Canada is miniscule compared to the total number of animals. I believe Montana found around 20 deer last year, mostly near the Canadian border. Compare that number,to the total deer population, and I think you will see that it is very small percentage wise.

Daryl Hunter

The biologist I mentioned was studying how to restore the migration up and over the Gros Ventre to the Green River drainage as do the pronghorn. It is thought that many elk migrated there before discovering the free food at the refuge. I asked if they had considered trying to get some to migrate the the Idaho desert but that was antithetical to them since he was contracted partially by the Wyoming Game and Fish. He thought when CWD got to the refuge it would kill 3/4 of the elk. Is that possible.

An idea was floated to feed at the Gros Ventre above Kelly then gradually move the feeding area farther up the Gros Ventre until I got the the Green River Drainage.

What I do know is 3/4 of the valley has been restored to wild land and and once again, I believe, the elk can fend for themselves. Scattered is smaller herds CWD will spread slower allowing time for the elk to build antibodies against it as are the trout of the Madison River against whirling disease.

We will soon know whether it spreads slowly like you say or whether it spreads like wildfire as my biologist friend thought. I hope you are right but I doubt it.

Jay Westemeier

As you said Daryl, know one really knows how fast CWD will spread among the Wyoming elk. The fear among biologists is that the large concentrated populations of elk at feed grounds will expose more elk to the disease over a short period of time, which will propagate the disease at a faster pace. It will also lead to a plethora of CWD prions in the feed ground soil for years. The refuge and other northwest Wyoming feed grounds have been a major concern long before the advent of CWD, helping to earn the label as the most infected elk population in North America.

Christine Christian

Good article. Incinerators are not going to do this - they have to be full-blown crematoriums. Might as well sell memberships to people too.
I'm glad to see that the alarm is finally raised and just maybe we'll get rid of that damned Elk Refuge. Don't get me wrong - I love the place - it just isn't fitting anymore. We have been telling them for years but every hunter has fought us on this. It WILL kill the trophy game hunter business and I say good riddance to that as well. Get a real job. We have the Forest Sterns of Jackson opposing us folks. It ain't gonna be easy but is has to be done. We have 4 or 5 other feed grounds around that need to go too.

Chad guenter

Ms. Christian: Will you be happy when the landscape is barren of animals? When a few elk remain where thousands have HISTORICALLY migrated?

That "damned Elk Refuge" has sustained the animals and humans of the Teton valley, and Wyoming for over 100 years.

Your emotions fill the gaps where your knowledge is lacking. EMOTION should never direct ones actions, it obviously is in YOUR case.

Grant Spellerberg

Chad, your attitude towards feed grounds being what sustains historic elk numbers is contrary to the truth. Feed grounds artificially sustain larger populations of elk, weakening the whole. If you read and understood the article it clearly says that large numbers of elk in one place contributes to the spread of cwd. It appears that your lack of knowledge is being filed by your emotions.

Chad guenter

Mr. Spellerberg: Elk have gathered here by the TENS of THOUSANDS long before the refuge. Man's placement of a town has taken away the elk's natural wintering grounds. I will go along with removing the feedground as soon as every trace of human inhabitance is removed from the NATURAL wintering area for these thousands of elk. You FAIL to acknowledge historical FACT.

Jay Westemeier

Hmmm, I'd like to read any archived historical article or report that says tens of thousands of elk gathered and occupied an equal area before the advent of the refuge.

Jay Westemeier

Chad, I didn't see where Christine ever advocated a landscape barren of animals. I'm sure she implied that this is what she hopes never happens and that being proactive would hopefully mitigate the overall affects of the disease. We've been dealing with CWD in Midwest whitetail deer since the early 2000's and have so far been able to hold it somewhat in-check. Year to year reports have shown a slow but steadily increasing infection rate in Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. None of the Midwestern states have a similar situation that Wyoming has with their elk feed grounds, where thousands of animals are confined to a small area. So, there is little to no data available that can predict the long term affects on ungulates in that type of situation. The predicted results right now are just the best educated guesses from the CWD experts. The big question is if northwest Wyoming is still willing to take a chance on future long term devastation to its elk population? Your area of the country is now the epicenter of CWD study because of its unique elk situation. You can call asking that question an "emotional" response if you want. I call it a very valid question by anyone.

Chad guenter

Mr. Westemeier: Deer and Elk are effected by CWD at far different rates. You cant draw a parallel or compare transmission. "None of the Midwest states have a similar situation as Wyoming" because YOU dont have Elk! Please try to stop comparison of YOUR local Iowa deer to Rocky Mountain Elk.

Jay Westemeier

I'm not trying to compare our deer to your elk. If you would have read my post completely, you would have seen that I mentioned the fact that northwest Wyoming's situation is unique and different from anything other states have had to contend with. If CWD is of no concern to you, why even post on the subject? The long term affects on the elk herds will be known in time, possibly after we're gone.

Daryl Hunter

It wasn't the placement wholly of the town that displaced the elk, it was the settlement of the valley from Colter Bay and Hatchet Ranch to the city of Jackson. Most of that has been returned to natural habitat.

The ending of feeding doesn't end the National Elk Refuge, there will still be 25,000 acres of traditional and natural habitat there for them as they had in 1850.

We have to ask ourselves; "do we like one animal over another, or do we like nature?" The only nature you seem to like Chad is the augmented nature that fosters that of which you like to hunt.

I also like peering through the fence and seeing 8,000 elk; however, it isn't natural.

Jay Westemeier

Excellent points Daryl.

Ken Chison

Wow Christine. Would you rather see a Nordstroms or a Sachs out on the refuge. I know those big city luxuries just aren't here yet. Or, how about subdividing that land so we can add more multi million dollar homes to the natural landscape. I would really like to know your background, be it real estate or just another fortunate trust fund recipient that showed up in Teton county, wanting to change it to fit your lifestyle and views. And how do you deem what is fitting and what is not? Do you even know why the elk refuge was established or the history of it?

Jay Westemeier

I've heard at least 25 different reasons why the elk refuge was established. Everyone seems to have there own version of the story. And if they ever decide to quit feeding the domesticated elk there, I'm confident the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could find another questionable use for what could become disease infested ground.

Ken Chison

It would sure be nice, if, others, not being commented to, would keep there opinions and google ready research to themselves, as they said they would in another post. Its like the creepy Uncle Eddy that shows up and everyone tries to ignore, but his loudness and demeanor make it so he always tries
to look like an expert of all (which he isn't). Then he always tries to have the last say in everything, while everyone is rolling their eyes and laughing. Watch my viewers and you as well shall see it before your very eyes.

Daryl Hunter

Ken, this is an open forum and you aren't the moderator.

Ken Chison

Oh, I know that Daryl. It is just one commentor, in general, that believes his googled information makes him an expert in all fields. And, having no real dealings with Jackson, outside a vacation, he believes he knows more than the people who live here. His sheer envy of people that, live in the outdoors, and are familiar with the dynamics of it, lead to all the googled info we could all get off our own phones. I can learn way more over a cup of coffee with one of the valleys old timers, than from someone that does not even live here. I will now anxiously wait for that plethora of knowledge to report to us all on how things should be.

Jay Westemeier

Even northwest Wyoming "old timers" haven't experienced CWD before and have no idea what its long term affects on the area's elk, mule deer and moose will be. Downplaying this disease and the potential variables that can help perpetuate it is typical of people who still believe the world is flat or just don't really care about the future of Wyoming's or the surrounding states' wildlife. They only value their own immediate interests or just play dumb while getting off by disparaging those who really do care. Right Maury?

Ken Chison

Just like clockwork and spot on by my predictions. LOL. Is that hot air I feel?

Jay Westemeier

Mr. Chison or whatever your real name is, instead of counting posts and baiting responses, why don't you do more research on these subjects and share your findings that support your positions? Have you ever witnessed an ungulate with advanced CWD? It isn't pretty. I know that Jackson Hole and hunters have benefited greatly from the existence of the National Elk Refuge, but the combination of the refuge and this disease could have long lasting and devastating affects that we've never seen before. I know that an animal suffering from starvation isn't easy to accept either, but the area's elk have been able to recover from past mass winter die-offs. If CWD takes hold in the refuge, you'll basically have 25,000 acres of infected land with little to no value toward future elk recovery and survival. Is it really worth the risk of doing nothing at all to at least slow the progression of this disease? Hopefully, a breakthrough on CWD will come soon. But until that happens, sitting back and settling with the status quo just isn't logical.

Ed Loosli

Maybe when a Wyoming elk hunter or his wife or child dies from eating a diseased elk, the State of Wyoming and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will finally take action...Until then, it looks like nothing will change.

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