In 2018 a mule deer was found in Grand Teton National Park that tested positive with CWD but this is the first elk to test positive within the park. Most of the elk within GTNP winter on the National Elk Refuge or on feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre Mountains. It’s not a matter of IF but WHEN CWD is found on the National Elk Refuge. It’s not unreasonable to expect that CWD is already present in the refuge and/or on feed grounds. What could have been mitigated years ago is now a very real reality for the most famous elk herd in the world.

Now that an elk with CWD has been found within Grand Teton National Park, there’s every reason to believe that elk that have been exposed to CWD are now on the refuge or one of the other 22 state-run feedgrounds. We cannot afford to wait any longer to take decisive action to slow and prevent the spread of CWD to one of the most famous elk herds in the world.

It is not out of reach of available 21st century tools to mitigate prevalence and impacts of CWD and phase out artificial feeding of elk. What should have begun years ago has been delayed until CWD is literally knocking on the door of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and very likely already has a firm toehold here.   The WGFD needs to implement a comprehensive, multi-faceted program as soon as possible to mitigate CWD, not just use a simple singular approach. We can find ways to prevent herds of cattle from co-mingling with elk and protect ranchers’ haystacks from being eaten by elk. Other states have been doing it for years and still have elk herds above objective.

Above all, we need to stop killing off wolves, which may be our most powerful allies against the spread of CWD. Recent research out of Wyoming, Colorado, and Yellowstone shows that both wolves and mountain lions can have an effect on curbing the spread of CWD by culling out infected elk and deer long before symptoms show outwardly. This is a multi-faceted problem that requires ingenuity and a diverse approach. We cannot afford to leave any stone unturned or any tool out of the toolbox of remedies.

This will be one of the largest wildlife management challenges of our time. How we respond now will determine what kind of disease situation we will be facing 10 years from now. There are reams of evidence showing that concentrating wildlife spreads disease. It’s the reason we are socially distancing to “flatten the curve” against Covid. Elk are biological creatures and the same principles apply. What’s worse for elk is that there is no vaccine or cure on the horizon. CWD is a 100% fatal disease.

Wildlife managers need to expeditiously and decisively phase out artificial feeding as soon as possible. Failure to do so is likely to result in a significant population reduction in the Jackson Hole Elk Herd and further increase the rate of spread of CWD to Montana, Idaho, and Utah. We must begin to act as though CWD is already present on the feedgrounds and refuge and begin the process of phasing them out now. Wildlife management decisions aren’t always easy to make, but it’s clear here that phasing out the feedgrounds is the correct path to ensure a healthy population of elk in the future.

Read press release from Grand Teton National Park and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department here.

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Photo: Kent Nelson