POWELL — As chronic wasting disease marches its way across Wyoming, Northwest College students are pitching in to help battle the disease.
NWC’s biology department and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department are collaborating to test a higher percentage of hunter’s harvests of mule deer from the Lower Shoshone and Clarks Fork herds.
The Game and Fish needs as many samples as possible from the area, but lacks the manpower to get it done alone. After training, NWC students will get practical experience and help track the disease, which is fatal to ungulates like deer. The tracking is a crucial part in determining how to best manage hunt areas in the Basin, according to Game and Fish disease biologist Eric Maichak.
“A lot of people are concerned about this from a health perspective,” Maichak said. “We’re trying to get solid data before changing management styles.”
Last week, at the front of a pristine classroom at NWC’s Science and Math Building, five deer heads sat in bloody plastic bags on well-used metal trays. This was not going to be a theoretical exercise. After the short introduction describing the dire situation with chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the Big Horn Basin, Maichak trained 15 biology students on how to gather samples.
Lymph nodes are needed for the test. Getting them out of a deer’s head is very invasive. Students took turns removing the nodes and returned to repeat the process the following day. Next they will begin accepting samples from area hunters as they come in. All a hunter needs to do is drop off the head of their harvest at NWC. For those wishing to keep the cape, students have been trained to remove the samples without ruining the hide for mounting.
“Our students will be on call to rendezvous with hunters here [at the school],” said Eric Atkinson, NWC assistant professor of biology.
When Maichak and Greybull area wildlife biologist Sam Stephens approached the professor about the idea of collaborating, Atkinson was keen to help. Atkinson lives near Belfry, Montana, and commutes into Powell daily. He’s been teaching at the college for 11 years and also teaches a wildlife management class. Recently a buck was taken from his property that tested positive for CWD.
“When I found out, I couldn’t sleep,” Atkinson said. “It’s a significant issue for us in the West.”
More than 40 percent of herds near Worland are infected with chronic wasting disease — and it’s moving this way.
The disease has been discovered in every Wyoming county that Game and Fish biologists have looked. CWD is most prevalent in the southeastern quadrant of Wyoming and in the Big Horn Basin, the agency states.
The disease has also gone worldwide: Korea, Norway and Sweden have all found recent cases, Maichak told students last week.
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In the past 55 years, since the disease was first identified in northern Colorado, all scientists have been able to do is track the disease and measure its prevalence.
The immediate impact for hunters is that their harvested deer may be infected and unfit for consumption.
“There is no link to human transmission as far as we can tell, but we suggest you air on the side of precaution,” Maichak explained.
In the long term, area deer herds could face uncertain futures. CWD is fatal for deer as well as elk, though less prevalent.
Northwest College has set up a sample hotline and a head drop at the Science and Math Building, hoping hundreds of area hunters will provide samples. Students will take samples seven days a week through deer season. The school is equipped with a minus 80 degree freezer and will receive help from students doing undergraduate research as well, bringing the total number of students working on the project to about two dozen.
Jordan Grindhein of Roy, Montana, is attending NWC in preparation for a career in veterinarian science and business. She was excited to get a chance to work on the project, helping map the disease in her home range.
“I go hunting a lot and wanted to get more hands on about [testing],” Grindhein said. “I wanted to know what to look for and see the process.”
Once collected, the samples will be sent to Laramie for testing.
“We think it’s important that students get real, authentic hands-on experience,” Atkinson said. “We’ve talked about this for years. Now there’s pressure to get at least 200 samples. I’m really thrilled to help.”
Maichak also took the training seminar on the road to Cody and Lovell to train local hunters on how to collect the samples. The idea is that hunters can extract not only their own samples, but samples for their hunting friends as well.
“It’s very helpful to have folks that are trained and know how to do it,” Maichak said, “because it won’t stop with them — they’ll pass it on.”
To schedule a sample removal, call 307-754-6018.