By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Chronic wasting disease, the dreaded, always-fatal malady that infects members of the deer family and essentially turns their brains to mush, is invading Montana wildlife from both the north via Canada and from Wyoming to south.
As of this writing on Dec. 4, seven deer this week were confirmed to have tested positive for the disease, the largest number since CWD was confirmed to have arrived in the state a year ago.
Just a few weeks ago, tests of a mule deer revealed CWD is now officially in Grand Teton National Park.
“This is a most disturbing reality we knew was coming,” said Lloyd Dorsey, the Wyoming conservation director for the Sierra Club, who along with disease experts and prominent wildlife scientists, has been warning the public for years. “We knew its arrival was overdue. And we knew that, more than likely, the first case in Jackson Hole would involve a deer.”
Notably, CWD is part of a group of illnesses called bovine spongiform encephalopathy. They involve prions, misfolded proteins that often are manifested in the brain. CWD is a close cousin of mad cow disease, which jumped from cattle to humans in Britain during the mid-1990s and left at least 177 dead.
So far there has not been a case of CWD being transmitted to humans from big game animals they eat, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an advisory that hunters have their game meat tested in known CWD-endemic areas and never to eat animals with disease symptoms.
Across the Lower 48, CWD is considered the most problematic, uncontrollable pandemic affecting wildlife in modern times, and has struck wild free-ranging and captive deer herds in 25 states and three Canadian provinces.
“Deer are the vanguards of disease progression in North America,” Dorsey notes. “It’s especially significant that not only was this alarming discovery made in a crown jewel national park, where millions of people go to observe wildlife each year, but that it happened in close proximity to the National Elk Refuge where thousands of wild elk are now gathering for the winter.”
In Colorado, CWD has infected elk herds and shown its ability to have population-level effects.
For years, Dorsey and federal experts, now retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have expressed grave concern about the controversial practice of artificially feeding thousands of elk at 22 feedgrounds operated by the state of Wyoming and at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole.
Wyoming wildlife officials and politicians have long downplayed the threat, denying it would reach wildlife there and continued to feed elk in order to placate the interests of hunting outfitters and guides.
Studies have shown that if CWD infects Greater Yellowstone’s world-famous elk herds it has a high probability of leaving the majority of wapiti in the region, which possess the same genetic makeup, extinct in decades to come. At present more than 20,000 elk gather at feedgrounds in three western Wyoming counties.
Last year, Montana wildlife officials wrote a letter to Wyoming registering its protest of the state’s widely condemned practice of feeding wildlife, but it was dismissed.
“We need to immediately end the artificial feeding of elk,” Dorsey said. “And along with it, we need to conserve wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions that are the best natural tools we have to hopefully slow the progression of this terrible disease.”
Scientists say that those carnivores, by targeting sickened prey species, help to reduce the number of infected animals moving across the landscape. Wyoming, however, is known for its hostile attitude toward predators.
With wolves, which are considered the most effective animals in targeting CWD-infected prey, they are allowed to be killed without a license, for any reason, by any means, any day of the year in more than 80 percent of the state.
This year, a federal court ordered the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which encompasses a huge swath of northwestern Wyoming to redo its analysis, which allowed the controversial Alkali Creek Feedground near Jackson Hole to continue operation.
“There is no question that Alkali Creek Feedground could become a reservoir for [chronic wasting disease] infection if it becomes established in elk populations in Northwest Wyoming,” U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal wrote.
In a separate court case more than 10 years old, managers at the National Elk Refuge promised to phase out feeding within a decade, but it has not happened.
Shane Moore, a renowned wildlife filmmaker and Wyoming native, has known it was inevitable that CWD would reach the heart of Greater Yellowstone.
The key point to remember, Moore said, is how CWD differs from other serious chronic diseases in that it reaches epidemic proportions on a slower-moving time scale. Yet its impacts, at least from what’s known today, are dire and total.
“If we come up with a sky-is-falling message today, skeptics will ask in five years why the sky didn’t fall,” Moore said. “But if you listen to the experts and look out 15 to 20 years, you realize we’ll be living with the consequences of what we did or didn’t do now.”
“It’s kind of like the start of being diagnosed with terminal cancer,” he added. “You know it’s the start of a battle, in which the effects at first seem minor. You don’t know exactly how it will end but you know that if you try to ignore its advance or pretend it doesn’t exist, it is certain not to end well.”
Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.