Two days before Christmas, disease biologist Jared Rogerson responded to a report of a sorry-looking buck mule deer in a fringe Pinedale neighborhood.
“It was alive, but it was just very sick and laying down and not interested in moving,” Rogerson said. “And it was really emaciated.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffer put the distressed animal out of its misery. A necropsy showed the buck had pneumonia, and weeks later testing at the agency’s Wildlife Health Laboratory in Laramie showed he had been worn down by degenerative chronic wasting disease — just the third-ever case of the incurable encephalopathy being confirmed in Wyoming’s portion of the Green River basin. A deer tested positive in residential Green River in 2012, and then it took five years for the next detection, marked near Pinedale’s Ralph Wenz Field Airport in 2017.
Other parts of Wyoming grappling with the recent arrival of the worrisome wildlife disease are seeing many more cases.
Game and Fish officials were surprised to see a flare-up of CWD this last fall in its deer hunt unit No. 105, which stretches from Yellowstone National Park to Badger Basin near the border of Montana — another state that’s scrambling to ascertain where the disease is occurring. Although the prion malady had never been known to occur in deer hunt area 105, five bucks shot and bound for freezers last fall and another that was road-killed tested positive out of 16 total deer tested from the area.
“That was a lot, because it was the first year we detected it up there,” Wildlife Health Lab Supervisor Hank Edwards said. “So that was a surprise to us.”
Edwards said he wouldn’t read much into the prevalence rate — which amounted to nearly a third of deer tested — because of biases that lead to likely infected animals being tested at higher rates.
“What happens is sometimes a hunter will shoot an animal and go, ‘Holy s---, that thing is really thin,’ and they’ll submit it when they wouldn’t test it otherwise,” Edwards said. “That really affects your data.”
Other swaths of the state where CWD has only recently arrived are experiencing suddenly widespread, routine detections that are more statistically significant.
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