By Christine Petersen CASPER STAR-TRIBUNE
CASPER, Wyo. – Chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal ailment that eats away at the brains of infected deer, elk and moose, isn’t likely going away on its own.
First identified in the wild in southeast Wyoming in the ’80s, it’s been slowly spreading east and west like tentacles crawling across a map. Press releases appear regularly showing new animals found with the disease in western Wyoming and Montana. It’s already been identified in 84 percent of Wyoming’s mule deer herds, 26 states and four Canadian provinces.
Most hunters and wildlife advocates know all of that. What no one knows for sure is what to do about it.
A working group in Wyoming made up about 30 people from around the state including outfitters, hunters, conservation groups, ranchers, lawmakers and biologists recently helped produce a 150-page report hoping to offer at least some direction and guidance. It’s now out to the public for comment.
Some of the options for dealing with a disease that still mystifies even most wildlife veterinarians will be controversial for portions of Wyoming’s hunting community. The report calls for potentially thinning select mule deer herds or populations in specific areas to prevent the disease from spreading. It suggests lowering buck numbers because males carry the disease at a higher rate. The group is also calling for municipalities to create artificial feeding bans to prevent mule deer from unnaturally congregating.
Most of the recommendations in the plan had full consensus of the various group members, said Kristen Gunther, a conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and co-chair of the working group. Something, she added, needs to be done.
“The decision to do nothing is a decision. It has a major cost. If we do nothing, we will continue to watch this disease spread and watch herds increase in CWD prevalence,” she said. “It’s important to look at the choice to do nothing as a choice and one that will have severe management implications on our herds.”
Chronic wasting disease is a prion—a mutated protein that eventually causes holes to form in the host brain. No cure exists and it can’t be killed like a bacteria or virus. It’s the deer and elk version of mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
It’s never been shown to cross the species barrier to humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization recommend people throw away any meat from infected animals. Researchers may still not know conclusively if it can or can’t cross to humans, but they do know the disease is having, and likely will have, population-level impacts on mule deer herds.
Some Wyoming herds have CWD rates in bucks as high as 40 percent. Bucks in a herd around Riverton may have prevalence over 50 percent, though more samples may be needed to produce statistically conclusive results, said Justin Binfet, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Casper wildlife coordinator who worked extensively on the draft plan.
“Not only are we documenting the disease in new areas and out of the state but there are areas outside of the core area where we’re seeing high prevalence,” he said. “It’s not good news for the future of our deer herds, especially mule deer.”
Wyoming’s current management plan calls for continued monitoring of the disease and staying up to date with research, but little else in terms of active management.
Some of the biggest changes in the draft plan released Dec. 2 are a potential thinning of herds and possible reduction in some artificial feeding.
For reasons scientists don’t yet understand, CWD rates are highest in buck deer. Research has shown the more bucks the higher a likelihood for spread, Binfet said.
The same goes for lowering some herd densities. CWD spreads from contact with an infected animal. Reduced densities, the research shows, potentially reduces transmission.
“With all of this the question in people’s minds is, ‘Is the cure worse than the disease?’” Binfet said. “It is fair to say there are some places in Wyoming where we have a lot of CWD and have really, really high buck ratios, and you can potentially reduce buck ratios without impacting the overall herd.”
The report also calls for a possible end to artificial feeding everywhere except the controversial elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Because the feedgrounds have a long history in Wyoming and their own complicated set of issues, Game and Fish plans to tackle figuring out their future in a separate series of meetings.
Whatever happens, Binfet said, decisions to possibly thin herds or reduce buck numbers will be done in areas with sufficient prevalence data on an individual, case-by-case basis alongside local residents and wildlife managers.
While Dax McCarty, outfitter for Wagonhound Land and Livestock near Douglas, acknowledges many of the proposed changes are needed, he also sees that it could be a hard sell for some of the public.
Gunther and Joshua Coursey, the other co-chair of the working group and CEO of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, agree. That’s why it’s important for the public—hunters, wildlife viewers, advocacy groups, ranchers and others—to be part of the process. Communication, they said, is paramount.
“We need public buy-in and support to manage for the disease and apply best management practices, but you also have to communicate with the public,” Gunther said.
And some of the proposed changes will need to be tried for upward of a decade, not just a season or two, Binfet said. Along with the management changes will also be possible research projects studying the impact of the tweaks to hunting seasons and other possible contributing factors.
Binfet is launching a long-term study with the University of Wyoming to look at the impact of predators such as mountain lions on the spread of the disease as well as how transmission occurs between mother and fawn.
The working group will reconvene in February to discuss any potential changes to the plan, which will then be submitted to the Game and Fish Commission in the spring.
“We’re at a point where people are interested and want something done,” Gunther said. “And that is reflected in the consensus and recommendations from the group.”