Chronic Wasting Disease plan could trim elk feedgrounds

by Angus M. Thuermer/WyoFile | DECEMBER 1, 2015

Wyoming will study closing elk feedgrounds to slow the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease as long as the move maintains population objectives, a draft plan for the disease says.

The draft focuses attention on Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds, where elk are artificially concentrated in winter making it easier for diseases to spread. Closures would occur on a case-by-case basis if Wyoming Game and Fish Department determines it can replace supplemental feed with natural winter range.

The plan, updating a 2006 document, is open for public comment until Jan. 5. Game and Fish commissioners could adopt a final version at the end of that month. The plan addresses deer and moose, but elk command most of the document’s attention.

“We’ve expanded greatly the section on feedgrounds,” said Scott Edberg, Game and Fish deputy chief of the agency’s wildlife division. “How are we going to address CWD if and when it hits the feedgrounds? We’ll do everything we can to try and extend winter ranges and minimize the use of feedgrounds.”

Wyoming’s proposal brought a positive review from a watchdog who’s been a critic of the state’s CWD efforts. “It’s heartening to see the Wyoming Game and Fish Department willing to have these discussions with all stakeholders,” said Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for the Wyoming chapter of Sierra Club in Jackson.

He said he’s hoping public review will reorient the way residents think about Chronic Wasting Disease. “We’ve seen that we have abundant populations — even in some areas overpopulation of elk in Wyoming,” he said. “Rather than focusing on the numbers, we have an opportunity to shift the discussion to the health of the herds.”

Eradication is not realistic

The draft is based on the premise that Chronic Wasting Disease “eradication is currently not a realistic disease management objective,” the plan says. That’s based upon the current research and known epidemiology. A recent test of a vaccine in elk produced disappointing preliminary results at a Wyoming Game and Fish laboratory.

Chronic Wasting Disease, a relative of Mad Cow Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, is always fatal. But there is no easy way to test whether an animal is infected. Its mysterious cause remains a controversial topic.

On feedgrounds, sick-looking elk would be killed, tested and their carcasses possibly incinerated, the plan proposes. But there are no plans for wholesale culling of wildlife to reduce density or test for infection.

This aerial view shows low-density feeding at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's feedground in South Park, Jackson Hole. Spreading out elk at feedgrounds is a method Game and Fish would implement to reduce the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in elk. (Susan Patla/Wyoming Game and Fish)

“We don’t plan on a large-scale cull of any elk in the Jackson area on feedgrounds or off feedgrounds,” Edberg said. “We are currently looking into an incinerator that would be able to handle elk-sized animals.”

Wildlife managers will review supplemental feeding policies “to determine if changes are warranted,” the draft says. It will look at closing specific feedgrounds as long as closures don’t “drastically reduce overall elk herd sizes,” disperse elk to damage private crops or mingle with livestock.

But herd sizes will not be sacrosanct forever. Game and Fish also would consider CWD when revisiting wildlife herd population objectives, which it does on a regular basis.

The plan also would recognize the positive role predators can play in preventing disease spread. Game and Fish would “monitor predatory animal presence and their impacts (both positive and negative) on feedground elk…”

While Wyoming’s wolf plan and accompanying laws call for killing wolves that kill numerous elk on feedgrounds, neither should stand in the way of wolves killing and eating diseased elk, Edberg said. Legislative language talks about wolves having “unacceptable impacts” on elk, giving wildlife managers some room with regard to sick animals.

“If wolves are taking what appear to be sick elk, that could be looked at as a positive,” Edberg said. “Those elk are not dispersing out,” and spreading the disease, he said. “We would discuss it.”

Today, the wolf issue is moot since a court decided Wyoming’s wolf plan doesn’t pass muster under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. But Wyoming could take over wolf management again as the case evolves, or if federal legislation proposed by U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) is successful.

Based on research that shows CWD could spread through plant material, Game and Fish also will assess whether hay from areas already infected with CWD should be used on feedgrounds, all of which are west of the Continental Divide where CWD has not yet been found in elk.

Research, public education and surveillance of hunter-killed animals would be continued, and in some cases increased. Game and Fish will collect information on migration routes to see how those help elk, deer and moose get to and from winter range, and how CWD might spread along them.

Much-needed public conversation

Sierra Club’s Dorsey said the draft plan opens much-needed public discussion, and none too soon.

“The components of the draft plan contain some of the very things that communities and wildlife and human health professionals need to have in Wyoming given that this is the most widespread prion disease epidemic in the world,” he said. “The disease is expanding in all directions of the compass and we’re finding out that there can be population effects to some deer herds and some elk herds from this disease.”

“Within the draft there appear to be some topics that are not easy to discuss but they are necessary for us to discuss. And to Wyoming’s credit, we have some tools at hand to mitigate the effects of CWD.”

One researcher, however, urged caution regarding the draft plan’s support for applied research. Frank Bastian, MD, professor of animal science at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, said Wyoming should review the entire literature on CWD and not simply follow the prevailing wind that identifies miss-formed protein as the cause.

This diagram shows how researchers believe Chronic Wasting Disease can spread through plant material. There still is conroversy whether malformed prions or proteins — or perhaps a bacterium — are the cause of CWD. (Cell Reports)

“The cause of this disease is controversial,” he said. Many in the scientific community have discarded his idea that a bacterium may be the root cause of CWD and other degenerative neurological conditions.

“They should take care [to examine] the entire literature instead of just the prion,” or protein research, he said of Wyoming’s efforts. “Until you can go [research] in another direction, nothing else will happen.

“It is not a replicating protein,” Bastian said of the cause of CWD. “It’s not even possible. Pasteur would turn over in his grave on this.”

Timeline: You can comment

Game and Fish will accept comments on the plan until Jan. 5, 2016. Comments must be made in writing to Wyoming Game and Fish Department attn: CWD Plan 3030 Energy Lane, Casper, WY, 82604.

Public meetings will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Teton County Library in Jackson and at 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Game and Fish regional office in Casper.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department will seek commission approval of a final version of the plan at the commission’s meeting Jan. 28-29 2016 in Cheyenne.

Read the Draft Wyoming Game and Fish Chronic Wasting Disease Plan here.