Senior Biologist With National Elk Refuge Says Deadly Pathogen’s Arrival In Greater Yellowstone Wildlife “Inevitable” and “Could Occur At Any Time”
State Senator In Montana Calls For Joint Resolution In Legislature To Condemn Wyoming’s Feeding Of Elk
By Todd Wilkinson
On a map, “Deer Hunt Area 17” is unlikely to ring any bells of recognition, even for most residents in the hunting-crazed Equality State. Located northwest of Gillette in the Powder River Basin—a sweep of mostly treeless geography best known as the largest coal-producing region in America—Hunt Area 17 on Monday, December 19, 2016 became one of the latest in Wyoming to have publicly-confirmed cases of Chronic Wasting Disease.
“If you see a deer, elk or moose that appears to be sick or not acting in a normal manner, please contact your local game warden, wildlife biologist or Game and Fish office immediately,” Scott Edberg, deputy chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division said in a press release. Game and Fish further added, “The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend that people should not eat deer, elk or moose that test positive for CWD.”
CWD strikes members of the cervid (deer) family. Along with animals that test positive—a determination made most often after they are dead—some people won’t even eat big game animals coming out of an area that has been deemed “CWD endemic”; the endemic zone means a part of landscape where CWD is now believed to be present but where it was previously absent. Today, the endemic zone covers nearly the entire state, save for a puzzle piece of Wyoming that is the most visited by tourists and globally renowned for its “wild” nature.
CWD has been described by epizoologists as “a slow-motion wildlife disaster” in the making; it involves an exotic plague—a cousin to dreaded “Mad Cow Disease— that, true to its name, “chronically” festers at first in wildlife populations and spreads between animals in dribbles and drabs, taking years to assert full impact. By many indications, the prevalence of CWD in the northern Rockies appears to be picking up speed.
An incurable, contagious, and always-fatal malady for deer family members, causing victims to become emaciated and turning their brains essentially to mush, CWD is now spreading inexorably across Wyoming, though it was first identified in the southeastern corner of the state decades ago. Today, the highest prevalence of CWD in mule deer there ranges between 20 and 40 percent in some hotspots. Most animals with CWD die within two years. It is more common in bucks than does and prevalence oscillates differently though deer and elk herds. There are no vaccines for stopping CWD or medicine therapies that can be dispensed to hosts having it.
The exact origin of CWD is inexact and a matter of speculation. Some believe it is related to scrapie which afflicted domestic sheep and then jumped species. Scrapie has been in European sheep for 300 years. In 1967, CWD was identified in captive deer kept at a research facility near Fort Collins, Colorado and then it spread to wild elk and deer.
No cases of CWD in the wild have been diagnosed in Montana and Idaho yet; however, with regard to Montana, the disease is poised to cross its shared border with Wyoming and it is pressing southward in wildlife from two Canadian provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan. (see map, below)