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Chronic Wasting Disease

Elk forage on grasses from the previous growing season in the National Elk Refuge near Jackson. A panel this week refined its recommendations for how Wyoming can stem the tide of Chronic Wasting Disease in the state.

A diverse group of citizen stakeholders this week refined its recommendations for how Wyoming can stem the tide of chronic wasting disease, which is plaguing cervid populations in the state.

Over a three-day discussion, debate and negotiation session in Lander, the 30-plus members of the Wyoming Game and Fish chronic wasting disease Working Group waded through the minutia of CWD science and management in order to identify meaningful and publicly palatable strategies for tackling the intractable disease. Their recommendations will be submitted to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for consideration as it revises its CWD management plan.

A number of recommendations gained strong consensus including seeking legislative authority to regulate intentional private feeding of wild cervids; properly disposing of CWD-infected carcasses; supporting a broad spectrum of CWD-related research; and heightening monitoring of the disease’s progression.

Other measures were more contentious. Evaluating elk feedground practices; studying the impact of artificial cervid aggregation; funding disease research and management through sales of a new kind of hunting license; increasing the harvest of mature bucks; and refunding license fees for animals that test positive in certain areas all failed to gain unanimous support. Some stakeholders representing sportsmen and -women, outfitters and agriculture were skeptical of those ideas.

Universal agreement was a tall order for a crowd representing wildly varying interests — members range from outfitters to biologists, nonprofit directors, county commissioners and hunters. But UW veterinary scientist Brant Schumaker said for him, the most notable takeaway was not how much was disputed, but rather how much consensus was reached.

“Certainly we haven’t agreed on everything, but I think we are making good recommendations on progressively managing the disease in Wyoming,” he said. “It’s a testament to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the experts recruited to present to us that a group of very diverse stakeholders have learned so much about this disease and are ready to consider significant actions to manage the disease.”

CWD is a progressive and fatal disease that inflicts mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose, among other cervids. The condition belongs to a rare category of diseases that also includes mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. It’s caused by abnormally folded proteins called “prions,” which slowly damage the animal’s nervous system.

No treatment is available for the insidious disease, no vaccine has been discovered and CWD is steadily migrating. Contagious animals may not show visible symptoms, but can spread the disease through direct contact with one another or by infecting the soil.

People are advised to not consume meat from known or suspected infected animals.

States around the interior U.S. are grappling with how to manage the problematic disease, and hunters and conservation groups are particularly alarmed about the threat to wildlife and ways of life.

In Wyoming, CWD was first detected in 1985 in mule deer in the state’s southeast corner. Since then, it has mounted a steady march across the state, increasing in both prevalence and distribution, particularly in deer populations. Today, it is found across the majority of Wyoming and new detections suggest a continued westward spread.

This seemingly intractable expansion prompted WGFD Director Brian Nesvik to appoint 32 members to the working group last spring with the directive to gather information and develop management options for the department to consider as it revises its CWD management plan. Several meetings around the state ensued and the group amassed a pile of recommendations from experts and members of the public. At the Lander powwow, the task was to painstakingly winnow them down and attempt to find consensus.

“This disease has been clobbering us in the state for decades,” said Shane Moore, a group member and wildlife filmmaker from Jackson. Moore argued that if Wyoming can limit environmental transmission — animals contracting the disease from infected areas where cervids concentrate — the state may be able to gain some kind of upper hand.

“I think the science is clear that if we don’t get a handle on environmental transmission, we’re going to lose this battle,” he said.

In a room filled with representatives of so many different interests, not everyone agreed with Moore, and it was impossible to find consensus on everything. Members strove to be specific without being too prescriptive, but there was still much push and pull and the interests occasionally clashed.

Recommendations perceived to pose an undue burden on agricultural activities or the state’s hunting industry in particular met with resistance. Strategies aimed at evaluating or reducing areas of artificial concentration of cervids — such as mineral blocks and water tanks — were bristled at, for example.

“There’s so much stuff against ag in this … you are going to get pushback,” said Garret Falkenburg, a rancher from Douglas. Falkenburg said he would prefer a recommendation rooted in fact.

“Ag loves wildlife,” he said. “We’re very tolerant of it … but the bottom line is we catch so much grief in so many parts of our operations. So if that’s where this is going to go, I just think that is has to be science-based.”

Some outfitters, meanwhile, opposed a notion brought up in the process that an increased number of predators such as mountain lions can help battle the disease.

“I think it makes some sense to people that a mountain lion could figure out a sick animal and key in on that animal,” said Sy Gilliland, a Casper outfitter and the president of the Wyoming Outfitters Guide Association. “So they are making this leap that the mountain lion will be this mythical creature that will take care of CWD. That’s not palatable to the sportsman’s industry of Wyoming.”

Pointing to a study out of Colorado on big cats and CWD-afflicted mule deer, Moore, however, said he thinks the animals have potential as one tool in tackling the disease.

Another sticky point was the issue of feed grounds. About 21 percent of Wyoming elk gather on feed grounds in winter, according to WyoFile calculations made from Game and Fish data. That level of concentration has some concerned that feed grounds could be vectors for the disease. Many outfitters, meanwhile, operate in areas dependent on feedground-fed elk.

One recommendation — for WGFD to work with stakeholder groups to evaluate feeding practices at elk feed grounds — did not gain consensus.

Early in the meeting, UW’s Schumaker expressed a belief that the group should tackle the feedground issue head-on. “The best science tells us low-density feeding is the best,” he said. “Science says, it’s best where possible to reduce feeding.”

But Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) responded that it’s not all about the science. “It’s the social side, it’s the public side,” he said, noting that issues like brucellosis, public safety, depredation and loss of revenue also need to be factored in.

Wyoming Game and Fish will take the final recommendations and consider them as it revises its CWD management plan. As it does so, the department will be able to see which of the recommendations had full consensus from the group and which did not.

The revised plan is expected to be released in December, and will be available for public review again before it’s considered for final approval, which is anticipated to take place in the spring of 2020.

Hicks, who emerged as one of the most vocal skeptics of recommendations, said after the meeting he believes the state needs to consider long-term implications and proceed with caution. These kinds of directives have the potential to drastically impact the landscape of deer hunting in Wyoming, he said, even leading to the demise of general-license hunting.

“We need to be very careful how we do this because the perception may very well be that the cure is worse than the disease,” he said.

And Gilliland told WyoFile his industry has been watching the disease closely since it was first detected. He said the working group process has been valuable, but he still sees the disease’s spread as inevitable.

“It’s really quite overwhelming,” he said. “We’re trying to slow it down, we’re trying to understand where it’s going, we’re trying to do all these other things. But ultimately it’ll be in every corner of the state, no matter what we do.”

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