Libby Lankford was 12 years old when she first heard about chronic wasting disease.
She was hunting on her family’s ranch near Albany in southeast Wyoming when her dad sat her down. If you’re butchering a deer or elk, don’t cut into the head, he said, don’t cut into the spine or get spinal fluid on you. The animal could be sick, and that sickness, people worried at the time, could infect people.
That was 17 years ago. It made an impression.
Chronic wasting disease, often shortened to CWD, was identified decades ago in deer not too far from that ranch in Albany. While much more is known about the disease now, experts say there are still more questions than answers.
And in the years since it was identified, it has spread its tendrils to 84 percent of the Wyoming’s mule deer herds, more than half of the country’s states, four Canadian provinces and several other countries. It’s always fatal to the elk, deer and moose it infects.
Eliminating the disease is nearly impossible, according to experts. The best option is managing it.
That’s why the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission recently approved a statewide plan to guide management of CWD based off of the recommendations of a working group made of more than 30 people, including Lankford.
While some say the plan isn’t perfect, it was created to be nimble and able to evolve with research and management. It’s also not without controversy. Some of the elements of the plan include the option of lowering buck numbers in certain herds. Each will be evaluated locally on a herd or population basis, but some hunters are wary of any move to reduce buck numbers.
Wildlife managers, hunters and others on the committee stressed that researchers must try different management techniques for five or even 10 years, then reevaluate them.
“Doing nothing to combat this disease is a decision, and it’s one we’ve made in Wyoming, and we’ve seen the disease proliferate around the state, the region, the country and world,” said Justin Binfet, Game and Fish’s Casper wildlife coordinator and one of the project leads. “At the beginning of the collaborative effort we solicited public input from deer hunters — 2,000 resident and 1,000 nonresidents — and one of the things that was most interesting was that the most unacceptable decision was to do nothing.”
The simplest explanation of chronic wasting disease is that it’s a prion that causes proteins in an animal’s body to mutate, forming holes in the creature’s brain. It’s a cousin to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans. There’s no cure, and since it’s not alive like a virus or bacteria, it can’t easily be destroyed. It is passed by contact between animals and can live in soil for years.
Unlike mad cow disease, CWD hasn’t been shown to cross the species barrier into humans. But preliminary results from a Canadian study on macaques showed it could, when consumed, be transmitted to that kind of monkey. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization both recommend hunters have their animals tested and not eat ones that test positive for the disease.
Those are the public health concerns. Game and Fish, Binfet said, is not a public health agency. It manages wildlife herds. And the overarching concern right now for wildlife is that CWD may be having, in some herds, a real impact on overall population and herd health.
So Game and Fish formed a working group to create a plan. The group spent hours listening to and reading comments from the public throughout Wyoming and the country, Lankford said.
Bruce Lawson, a hunter and Casper native, joined because of the serious impact CWD is having on herds. He believes the recommendations will need to change and be tweaked over time, but that was the intention.
“It will be very long-term scientific approach,” Lawson said. “I really appreciate the fact that it’s a science-based approach with some long-term analysis of the various prescribed measures that might be taken.”
After months of public comment following the proposed plan’s release, the Game and Fish Commission passed the proposal six to one.
“The CWD plan is a step in the right direction to manage the disease in Wyoming,” said Commission President Peter Dube in a news release. “It is a living document that we can adjust, adapt and change. It’s a controversial subject that the Commission takes very seriously. The process was so large and so many people were involved, and we are grateful for that.”
The plan has several overarching elements including highlighting the need for research, potentially reducing buck numbers in certain herds, cutting down the number of areas where deer and elk artificially congregate or, in some cases, thinning herds in CWD hotspots.
The plan did not, however, address elk feedgrounds, one of the state’s most controversial practices. Game and Fish plans to create a second committee that will look specifically at the future of elk feedgrounds, especially since CWD has now been identified in deer in the same area where elk use feedgrounds.
The most hotly-debated piece of the plan empowers local wildlife managers to decide if certain herds should have fewer bucks. The disease is much more prevalent in males than females, and is the most prevalent in buck mule deer.
One herd near Casper, for example, has a target of about 30 to 45 bucks per 100 does but has had as many as 50 bucks per 100 does. That kind of management creates the opportunity for more big bucks on a landscape available during hunting season. But recent research shows that bucks are also spreading the disease and dying at a high rate.
“There’s a reasonable likelihood that those buck ratios we’ve had in the last 30 years have had a significant role in the spread of CWD,” Binfet said. “What’s the point of managing for that high a number of mature bucks if a significant number are tipping over at 5 years old?”
To Lankford, it’s that simple: She’d rather hunt bucks and bulls now than maintain higher rates only to have them die from a long, debilitating illness.
The plan makes clear, and Binfet articulated, that no efforts to reduce buck or bull ratios would occur without local input and support. Without local support, any efforts to manage CWD will likely not be in place long enough to make a difference.
The final piece, and one of the most important ones, is research. Game and Fish will look at, for example, what effect lowering the number of males has on the female population. Researchers will continue studying the connection between CWD and genetics and the role that large carnivores such as mountain lions and bears play on CWD levels in herds. They’ll also continue trying to understand how big an impact environmental transmission plays in CWD.
“We’re not going to eradicate CWD, and we’re not going to attempt to; we don’t think we can,” Binfet said. “But can we get prevalence down to a manageable level and prevent it from getting established in new areas while still maintaining robust deer populations? It’s worth trying.”