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The National Elk Refuge
The National Elk Refuge

Wyoming’s CWD Plan Falls Short

In December, I wrote a fairly pointed column about Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds doubling as a time bomb for a major outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which could set into motion a series of circumstances leading to a wholesale killing of elk. Since then I’ve read a draft plan published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) for dealing with the eventual CWD outbreak looming on the horizon like a hundred-foot-high tsunami.

The plan correctly states that there’s no way to prevent the spread of CWD, so deal with it. Roughly, for elk hunters in Wyoming, as well as surrounding states, this means officials want them to plan on having a quadruple bypass operation instead of practicing preventive health care.

The Wyoming document resembles Montana’s plan in most respects with at least two significant differences. First and most important, Montana does not have a series of state-run elk feedlots and the National Elk Refuge where the federal government has its own artificial winter feeding program. Long ago, Montana made a sound biological decision to not allow or operate artificial elk feeding operations. This greatly lessens the potential severity of any CWD outbreak in the Big Sky State.

The glaring omission in the Wyoming draft plan is any discussion about the possibility of closing the feedgrounds to help prevent an outbreak—or even after an outbreak to help control it. Instead, the plan talks of perusing the feedgrounds looking for sick elk and “lethally taking”? them. Hard to believe, actually, that a managing agency would say this, out loud in public, knowing that many if not most elk affected with CWD would not look sick until the later stages of the disease—not sick enough to stop them from continuing to spread the disease to CWD-free Wyoming wildlife (such as the 6,000 or so elk living on hay on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson) or dash over to Idaho and Montana and affect even more healthy animals. The plan does say the WGFD wants to “minimize the spread”? and “reduce dispersal”? of CWD, but apparently not bad enough to consider addressing the big problem, the feedgrounds.

Ironically, WGFD discourages private feeding of elk because, as noted in the plan, “there is evidence that CWD is more efficiently transmitted when these animals are concentrated.”?

The draft plan does have a short section near the end on feedgrounds. In it, WGFD acknowledges that prevalence of CWD in concentrated herds can exceed 50 percent and sort of implies, vaguely if you read carefully, that these affected animals might be killed, maybe. Montana, on the other hand, is more honest in it approach, saying forthrightly that under its “aggressive elimination”? alternative, a minimum five-mile radius around where the outbreak occurred would be established and elk “eradicated”? from this 80-square-mile area. Hunting incentives would be used when feasible and department personnel doing the rest of the eradication work.

A few months ago, when writing about the Montana plan, I questioned whether this solution was worse than the problem. Wyoming also makes this point in its draft plan, noting that this large-scale reduction would have a more serious impact on the elk population than CWD. The Cowboy State might be right about this one. One has to wonder if Montana or any other state would have the political backbone to launch an elk eradication program. Imagine killing every elk (possibly other ungulates like deer and moose, too) in an 80-square-mile area!

Something close to this actually happened last year in New York as a reaction to a CWD outbreak the white-tailed deer population. There were differences, of course, such as occurring in a more populated area without an elk population. Nonetheless, the New York situation makes that tsunami on the horizon look even higher—while we sit on the beach and watch it.

Let’s face it. Any reaction to a CWD outbreak looks ugly compared to preventing it in the first place—or at least holding it off as long as possible. That’s why the option of closing the feedgrounds should be a significant addition to Wyoming’s final plan when it comes out later this year.

The official public comment period on the draft plan has ended, but if you want to chime in on Wyoming’s CWD situation, contact Christie Christensen at Christie.Christensen@wgf.state.wy.us or Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 5400 Bishop Blvd., Cheyenne, WY 82006.

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2 comments

  1. Chronic Washing Disease? The elk are bathing to death?

  2. It is painfully true that the Wyoming Wildlife Commission and Game & Fish Department are politically captive to the ag-community and especially the ranchers of western Wyoming.
    I cringe any time I hear “adaptive management” from land or wildlife agencies, because it means little more than dithering about this, tweaking that and not doing anything effective enough to upset anyone in conservative interest groups.
    As upsetting as it will be to the general public when Wyoming starts its test ‘n slaughter program for brucellosis-infected elk, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet when hundreds and thousands of elk start dying of chronic wasting disease a few years from now, on Wyoming feedgrounds.
    As for assurances that CWD does not pose a threat to humans who consume CWD-tainted venison, TSE diseases have jumped species barriers before, to the great consternation of British health authorities dealing with mad cow disease and its human victims with CJD-varient disease.
    (Brodie Farquhar is a Lander-based freelance writer, who reported on the test ‘n slaughter story for High Country News earlier this month.)