At first the discussion was hypothetical — if chronic wasting disease reaches the western side of the state.
Then it was a likely — when the disease reaches some of the state’s biggest elk and deer herds.
Now it’s there, confirmed first in deer in the Star Valley and Pinedale areas and more recently near Jackson.
The always-fatal neurological disease still hasn’t been documented on any of Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds, including the iconic National Elk Refuge, but most wildlife officials are framing its arrival not as an “if” but a “when.”
“CWD is a tremendous threat, and our best available science suggests that feedgrounds will exacerbate the effects,” said Brian Glaspell, manager of the National Elk Refuge.
Once it’s on the feedgrounds, wildlife officials and advocacy groups alike worry about how quickly the disease will spread among animals highly concentrated in the same place for prolonged periods of time.
For now, state wildlife plans remain the same, and include testing and monitoring for the disease. Federal wildlife protocols are being ramped up, including mandatory testing of all elk killed on the refuge and discussing siting an incinerator in Teton County for infected carcasses. But exactly how and when the refuge will begin to phase out feeding is still being discussed.
Wildlife advocacy groups are calling on the federal government to develop that plan now. Wildlife officials say they understand the need to stop congregating animals in tight quarters, but are also constrained by what to do with tens of thousands of hungry elk in the middle of a Wyoming winter.
All agree it’s not a problem that is going away.
By now, chronic wasting disease’s story in Wyoming is a familiar one: it was discovered in captive deer in Colorado and free-ranging deer in southeast Wyoming. For decades, it has been slowly infecting animals throughout the U.S. and Canada.
It likely spreads from animal to animal contact or from the environment. It causes holes to form in an animal’s brain, resulting in droopy ears, emaciation, excessive drooling and blank stares. It is always fatal.
CWD seems to hit deer herds the hardest, followed by elk and moose. It is the ungulate version of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, mad-cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep.
But it’s also a prion, a non-living part of the body that is mutated, which means it can’t be killed through cooking or disinfecting like a bacteria or virus.
One recent study on a type of monkey suggested a possibility that it could be transmissible to other species through consuming meat, though the research is not complete. While no one can prove CWD can transmit to humans, the Centers for Disease Control advises people not to eat meat that comes from an animal that tested positive.
All of this is to say the problem is complex and worrisome to hunters and wildlife officials alike.
The biggest concern for the Game and Fish Department is its likely impact on herd numbers.
A doctorate study by University of Wyoming graduate Melia DeVivo showed in 2017 that if left unchecked, with no changes to the landscape or herd numbers, a mule deer herd southeast of Douglas could be gone in 40 years.
That would be the worst-case scenario, she said, and in deer, which for reasons no one quite understands are impacted more severely than elk. But the thought of CWD reaching elk feedgrounds where animals are packed tightly together for months on end is worrisome.
“Congregating animals like they do on the feedgrounds, it presents a situation where you will have higher transmission rates and you will have more animals infected,” she said. “It does create an environment of higher prevalence. How high will it get? I have no idea. How will it affect the population in the long term? I don’t know, but because it is a 100 percent fatal disease, they will start to see declines in elk numbers.”
Many wildlife advocacy groups have been calling for the feedgrounds to be shut down for years. Game and Fish operates 22 of them scattered across the western portion of the state, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Elk Refuge.
“There is no safe way to continue winter feeding of elk. The USFWS needs to permanently discontinue feeding now since chronic wasting disease has been detected in Jackson Hole,” wrote Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a nonprofit advocating for the country’s wildlife refuges.
But simply shutting them down is more complicated than not showing up with a feed truck in the winter, said Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish’s chief game warden.
Feedgrounds were created to prevent elk from comingling with cattle on western ranches. Elk eat hay and break fences; they also spread brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their fetuses.
If elk were not artificially congregated on feedgrounds, they would spread onto ranches, Nesvik said. Homes and other human development now occupy large chunks of the native winter range for the Jackson elk herd, which numbers around 10,000.
The feedgrounds, particularly the National Elk Refuge, were also established to prevent large numbers of elk from starving to death during particularly harsh winters.
If all feedgrounds were shut down this winter, Game and Fish estimated in 2004 that the agency would need to reduce herd sizes by as much as 80 percent, he said.
Both the refuge and Game and Fish said they are working on shortening the amount of time they spread feed – starting later in the winter and ending earlier in the spring. The Elk Refuge didn’t offer any feed last year, courtesy of a milder-than-normal winter.
The agencies are working together on that detailed plan to phase back feeding on the refuge, but haven’t had any luck so far.
“Some of the things that have been proposed to this point are untenable from our perspective,” Nesvik said. “Where it stands is there are some challenges that neither the department nor the refuge has been able to figure out a way to overcome that is reasonable to the other side.”
One of those challenges, he said, is what to do with the elk that can’t find natural food on the refuge and end up on nearby private land.
Game and Fish, for its part, plans to create a statewide working group focused on CWD throughout Wyoming in the spring. It also plans to hold public meetings in the Jackson, Afton and Pinedale areas to specifically address feedgrounds. The meetings will be intended to help work on a solution to managing herds in the face of the disease.
In the meantime, CWD will likely continue spreading west as it has done now for decades.