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As an always-fatal neurological disease in elk and deer marches its way ever closer to Wyoming’s elk feed grounds, it’s time for wildlife managers and the public to have a serious conversation, said Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott.

Chronic wasting disease has been moving slowly west across the state since it was discovered in 1985 in southeast Wyoming. Maps of its spread look like spider webs reaching ever outward east and west, north and south.

“I think chronic wasting disease is the biggest threat to the North American model since its inception,” Talbott said recently, referring to the concept that hunters and anglers pay for fish and wildlife management through license sales. “If all of these worst-case scenarios play out, this could be a real game changer for us.”

Because of these concerns, Game and Fish plans to roll out a massive public information campaign throughout the state to talk with people about the seriousness of the disease, what could happen if and when it reaches the elk feedgrounds and how hunters themselves can help.

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Looking at the numbers, it’s easy for a sportsman to be discouraged about the disease.

In mule and white-tailed deer, it kills nearly every animal it infects. In elk, it likely does. Nationwide, deer hunters make up 62 percent of the $498 million in licenses and permits sold in 2011, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of $18 billion in hunting expenditures across the country, 47 percent came from deer hunters. And deer hunting supported more than 310,000 jobs across the country.

“If hunting were a company, the amount spent by sportsmen in 2011, let alone today, would place it in the Fortune 500,” said Chris Dolnack, the senior vice president and CMO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “It’s time we start acting like it, because deer and deer hunting are a tremendous economic force.”

Dolnack was speaking as part of a series of panels on chronic wasting disease at a recent summit hosted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

All of these numbers mean that if deer populations drop dramatically, or if fears continue that the disease could spread to humans, hunting may no longer be able to pay to manage wildlife.

“CWD is the single largest threat to the future of deer and deer hunting,” he said.

Chronic wasting disease, as opposed to many other wildlife diseases, is particularly confounding for wildlife managers, biologists and disease specialists. It is caused by a prion, or protein, that mutates in the body. When each mutated protein encounters another protein in the body, it instantly changes that one. The scientific name is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, which literally means Swiss cheese in the brain, said Jonathan Mawdsley, a senior science advisor for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Ultimately, the disease causes holes to form in an animal’s brain, creating visible signs such as lethargy, excessive drooling and weight loss. While animals will eventually die from the disease, they also have a higher likelihood of dying by something like a car collision or predator than a healthy deer.

It can’t be cured by a known vaccine or killed by an antibiotic. It passes from animal to animal through touch, and some research shows it can live in soil for up to 16 years.

The human variation of the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In cattle it is mad cow disease and in domestic sheep it’s called scrapie. Until recently, researchers believed it could not be passed to humans, but a not-yet-published study out of Canada indicates it can be given to a kind of monkey called the macaque through consuming infected deer meat. Though even that study creates more questions than answers, Talbott said.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s anything with this disease that is clear cut,” Talbott said. “The only thing I can tell you is when an animal gets it, it dies.”

The disease can, he and other wildlife managers caution, have population-level impacts on deer and elk herds.

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While it could be easy to feel helpless, wildlife managers like Talbott say hunters can already play a role by contributing to research and helping prevent its spread.

First, don’t drive carcasses around, he said. Leave brain and spinal tissue in the field at the kill site or take it to a landfill.

“Properly dispose of your carcasses and very carefully watch the carcass transport guidelines,” he said. “You used to see county roads littered with carcasses, but proper carcass disposal and transportation are two things people can do now.”

And always get your animal tested if it came from an area known to have CWD, or somewhere Game and Fish is currently surveilling for possible infection.

Game and Fish is also planning to begin a public information campaign to help the public first understand the gravity of the disease and then begin to brainstorm possible solutions. It will be similar to the Mule Deer Initiative which began in 2013 with struggling deer herds in the Wyoming Range and Platte Valley.

“This isn’t going away. It is not a flash in the pan. It is not like EHD which comes in and kills a bunch of deer and is gone in a year,” Talbott said, referring to epizootic hemorrhagic disease. “This is very persistent. There’s a lot of messages there. We have got to gear up and deal with this disease and public education is a huge part of it.”

States and the federal government need to invest in combatting chronic wasting disease, said Dan Forster, the vice president and chief conservation officer of the Archery Trade Association.

Instead of viewing the hunting industry, particularly deer hunting, as something to fund, state and federal agencies should see it as an investment.

“The money we need from surveillance continues to be on the backs of hunters,” he said. “We need to invest in those things we know that will help us battle the disease. That’s surveillance; that’s research; and that’s communication.”

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