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The New West: Chronic wasting dilemma

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What to do with dead elk?

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Imagine being a wildlife watcher in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, or a photographer positioned at the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, or a big game hunter prowling one of Greater Yellowstone’s national forests.

Out of the woods stumbles a haggard-looking elk, drool hanging from its mouth. In clear view, you see the disoriented wapiti drop to the ground and die.

Should the fallen cervid be left to naturally biodegrade and provide sustenance for dozens of wildlife scavengers? Or, should park rangers and state game wardens be summoned to rapidly gather up the carcass and haul it off for disposal, treating it as toxic waste?

Does this scenario sound mind-blowing?

If the dead elk (or deer or moose) is suspected of having perished from chronic wasting disease – an always fatal brain disorder and cousin of mad cow disease that afflicts members of the deer family – public land managers in the Greater Yellowstone region may soon be scrambling to carry out the latter.

Such a strategy is already part of protocols put in place by the states of Montana and Idaho should they have to deal with wildlife stricken by chronic wasting. Disease experts say its arrival in Montana could be a game changer, making fears about brucellosis seem minor by comparison.

Chronic wasting is the deer family equivalent of mad cow disease. Wyoming is now in the midst of drafting an action plan that updates its old 2006 strategy. John Lund, regional supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish in Pinedale, told me the document should be on the street this spring.

One eye-opening piece of the original draft referenced the possibility of gathering up dead, diseased elk and deer from the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds – and then incinerating them. (Artificially feeding public wildlife, as well as game farming wildlife, is banned in Montana).

The reason incineration is necessary and may be preferable to dumping animals in a landfill: Prions, the contorted proteins that cause chronic wasting disease, are hard to destroy. They can leach into soils and persist indefinitely if carcasses of infected animals are left to decompose on the ground.

Studies also have shown that plants springing up from contaminated soils can uptake prions and potentially infect animals eating them. While there’s been scant evidence of any humans eating diseased animals getting sick, health officials recommend against consumption until more is known.

This winter, a disease specialist with Wyoming Game and Fish contacted operators of the Teton County Trash Transfer Station south of Jackson, Wyo., inquiring about the possibility of installing a furnace there to incinerate the remains of chronic wasting disease-infected wildlife.

It’s sure to spark public interest, and not only due to the potential of having the transfer station become a staging area for disposing of diseased animals. A larger unanswered question remains: What does it mean if state and federal land managers feel they must aggressively remove carcasses tainted with chronic wasting from the field in order to prevent environmental contamination?

Last fall, a whitetail deer buck that was shot not far from Yellowstone’s eastern border tested positive for chronic wasting, notes Lloyd Dorsey, a hunter and state director with the Sierra Club in Wyoming. Dorsey adds that a mule deer, which also tested positive, was killed on the Wind River Indian Reservation east of elk feedgrounds in the Green River Basin.

Not long ago, Dorsey updated a map showing the progression of chronic wasting toward Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as Montana and Idaho.

He is among a growing group of citizens, scientists, hunters and conservationists concerned about the impacts chronic wasting will have when it reaches the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem, which holds the most abundant and greatest diversity of big game herds in the Lower 48.

Chronic wasting disease has not yet turned up in Montana or Idaho, but it continues to march westward and north across Wyoming. During the last year alone, the geographic area in Wyoming with diseased animals has expanded more than 3.5 million acres, more than one and a half that of Yellowstone’s.

Many disease experts believe its prevalence will accelerate if it reaches Wyoming feedgrounds, which cluster animals unnaturally around artificial feed in winter and then disperse widely across the landscape.

Dorsey’s main points in comments offered to Wyoming wildlife officials and backed up by science: Close the feedgrounds, conserve predators that mitigate the effects of infectious diseases across the landscape, and get all animal and human health agencies to craft a comprehensive plan to address the disease.

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.

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