Article by Mackenzie Thomas
Elk feedlots, while typically known to expedite the spread of many diseases like hoof rot or brucellosis, are currently a ticking time bomb for ‘zombie deer disease’ also known as chronic wasting disease.
The disease has been found in Wyoming deer and elk for upwards of thirty years.
“When chronic wasting disease eats away at the brain material, it leaves the deer or elk stumbling around and drooling,” Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Kristin Combs said.
She said the disease was named based on how the animals look after symptoms begin to show.
Zombie Deer Disease is caused by a misfolded protein in the body which the body fails to recognize as a foreign body. As the disease progresses, the original misfolded protein causes other proteins to misform, typically in the neurological systems of the animals.
The disease is typically transferred from one animal to another through their urine, saliva or other bodily fluid and because of this, feedlots are especially dangerous.
“Right now in Wyoming, some herds have chronic wasting disease in the Southeast corner, near the Colorado border. Colorado was where the disease was first prevalent in elk and deer,” said Combs.
Combs touched on how most of the spread of the zombie deer disease in Wyoming is between mule deer and white tailed deer, but the disease is becoming more common in elk herds across the country.
Currently, most elk herds have less than a 10% prevalence of chronic wasting disease, however when the disease spreads to Elk feedlots, the prevalence is expected to reach anywhere between 75% and 90%. The disease is not yet common among elk herds in Wyoming, but the prevalence rates are climbing higher and are expected to continue to climb if nothing is done to slow the transfer of the disease.
“The most important thing that can be done is to phase out the feed grounds as quickly as possible,” said Combs, as she discussed how detrimental the disease will become once it begins to affect elk feedlots in Wyoming.
Because scientists and biologists are still working to understand prion diseases like zombie deer disease, it is near impossible to completely stop the disease from spreading. The disease is 100% fatal in elk and deer. However, measures can be taken to slow it significantly.
“When chronic wasting disease makes its way to the feed grounds, it will have a higher prevalence in dense populations of both elk and deer,” said Combs.
She said that alongside phasing out feedlots, there is another measure that can be taken to help slow the spread of the disease.
Carnivore conservation can aid in slowing zombie deer disease once it begins to spread through feedlots. Large carnivores prey on elk and deer and in order to conserve their energy, they typically target sick or weak looking prey.
“Large populations of elk dying off will cause a loss of biomass within Wyoming’s ecosystems,” said Combs.
Because the disease will likely affect large populations of elk, this loss will cause not only a population decline for the elk, but it will also affect surrounding populations. Wolves and bears will be affected due to the loss of the elk population.
Alongside the possibility of losing larger predators like wolves and bears, it is predicted that the vegetation will be affected as well. Elk and deer are grazing animals and with the loss of these two populations an overgrowth of vegetation will occur.
“Within an ecosystem, large population loss of both predators and prey will occur,” said Combs.
As the threat of zombie deer disease continues, feedlots will be closely monitored in order to attempt to phase them out. While this is a controversial process, it might be the only thing that could help slow the spread of the seemingly undead elk.