JACKSON — All hunters who notch their tags on the National Elk Refuge must now leave behind the head of their animal or allow biological technicians to extract a lymph node that can be tested for disease.
The policy change is one part of the refuge’s immediate response to chronic wasting disease being discovered in Jackson Hole. The animal that made the degenerative neurological disorder’s presence official in Teton County wasn’t an elk — rather, a buck mule deer — but it was found road-killed just a few hundred yards outside the refuge’s northern boundary near Kelly.
“Barring a change that we can’t foresee, this is the new normal,” National Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell said. “We’ll have required testing of all harvested animals and heightened security.”
Collection barrels for elk heads are located at the Miller House and the West and McBride hunt parking areas. There are still three more weeks in the refuge’s hunt, which goes through Dec. 14.
The positive test of the disease often called CWD did not trigger mandatory testing of elk killed in Grand Teton National Park, though it’s recommended. Over 90 percent of animals killed in the park are tested, spokeswoman Denise Germann said, due to “vigorous” efforts from rangers to make contact with hunters and encourage them to leave behind samples.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also encourages, but does not require, hunters to submit tissue samples from harvested animals for CWD testing. Samples can be turned over at check stations, in the field to wardens or biologists or at the state agency’s regional offices.
Results are typically available within three weeks.
Although CWD has never been transmitted to a human, eating game meat from animals that carry it is not advised. Canadian research has found that there is not an absolute barrier between ungulates and primates and that Macaque monkeys contracted the condition by eating meat from CWD-positive deer.
There’s no cure for CWD, which causes its victims to waste away in body and mind. It’s 100 percent fatal and can cause major population declines in deer. Impacts on elk populations are generally less severe, though state and federal wildlife managers will embark upon an unpredictable and unprecedented experiment if they continue feeding — and unnaturally concentrating — elk once the prion disease crosses over the species to wapiti.
The refuge, Glaspell said, is making some other immediate changes in response to the game-changing disease being found on the landscape. There will be more surveillance and killing of sickly looking animals, he said, and new biosecurity protocol for handling specimens that are potentially infected, including using new scalpels for every animal sampled, mandatory boot covers and washes, and dedicated equipment for handling potentially infected animals, such as new trailers.
Altering more fundamental refuge policies to best cope with the disease — such as the 106-year-old feeding program — will take more time, Glaspell said. The refuge is supposed to be taking steps to reduce the duration and intensity of its feeding program to come into alignment with a guiding, now 12-year-old interagency plan, but numbers and trends are moving in the opposite direction.
“The timeline is honestly not wholly up to me, but this certainly changes the urgency,” Glaspell said. “The significance of (the new CWD finding) has been downplayed a little bit, but the truth is this is a trigger for us, and it means a new way of thinking and doing business going forward.
“Basically, it’s a big threat,” the refuge manager said. “In terms of immediate actions on the ground, our response is fairly limited. But in terms of what we’re thinking about in the next decade and ten decades on the National Elk Refuge, it’s a new day.”