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Chronic Wasting Disease Strikes Montana And Continues Its March On Yellowstone

As Wyoming Continues To Deny The Threat Posed By Feedgrounds, Critics Say Federal And State Agencies Demonstrate Epic Dysfunction For Their Lack Of A Coordinated Plan

PART THREE:

At the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, officials there have made it abundantly clear they frown upon “the celebritization” of wildlife. Over the years, field personnel have been dismissive whenever members of the general public have given individual animals nicknames, such as the case with famous grizzly bears in Jackson Hole.

Game and Fish managers insist that naming wildlife causes humans to anthropomorphize animals, and it puts too much emphasis on individuals when the department, they say, is devoted to stewarding species at the population level.

Not long ago, Game and Fish researchers broke their own rule when they bestowed a moniker on a wild wapiti mother kept in captivity. She wore ear tag No. 12 and they dubbed her “Lucky”.

Lucky was born a wild cow elk who initially survived a close brush with doom. For those studying Chronic Wasting Disease, she represents either a cryptic symbol of hope for the persistence of elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, or, in the eyes of scientists thinking about zoonotic diseases, a frightening potential harbinger.

In 2002, 39 healthy elk calves were captured at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and transported across the state to a research facility at Sybille Canyon near the town of Wheatland. There, the young ungulates were placed in pens.

Over the course of a decade, every single one contracted CWD and perished—all except for Lucky. 

The rate of CWD’s lethality, involving wapiti guinea pigs like these, speaks to the disease’s virulent progression especially among deer family members grouped in tight quarters and exposed to disease. Similar outcomes have been mirrored in game farm settings involving captive privately-owned deer and elk.

While mortifying, the high casualty rate at Sybille was not the most disconcerting aspect of the experiment overseen by wildlife veterinarian and researcher Dr. Brant Schumaker.
"Lucky" the cow elk, pictured here at the state-run Thomas Thorne/Elizabeth Williams Wildlife Research Center at Sybille, Wyoming. Lucky then, in 2015, was a CWD survivor, 13 years old and weighing 600 pounds. Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish Department
"Lucky" the cow elk, pictured here at the state-run Thomas Thorne/Elizabeth Williams Wildlife Research Center at Sybille, Wyoming. Lucky then, in 2015, was a CWD survivor, 13 years old and weighing 600 pounds. Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Sybille is a facility named in honor of two of Wyoming’s best-known modern wildlife researchers, the late husband and wife team of Drs. Thomas Thorne and Beth Williams. Ironically, the late Dr. Thorne, who served as Wyoming’s state wildlife veterinarian, once chastised conservationists, branding them alarmists for raising concerns about CWD and calling for Wyoming’s feedgrounds to be mothballed. He asserted the disease would spread slowly across the state of Wyoming and likely would have modest impacts on elk compared to deer.

Time, however, has already proved some of those sanguine predictions made by Thorne and others to be wrong. CWD is actually spreading more rapidly across North America than many thought possible and it is leaving behind a lethal trail. 

So concerning is CWD among hunters and others in America that this fall there’s been a national shortage of test kits available for hunters to collect samples from game animals they have harvested and send them into labs for analysis. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that all ungulates killed in CWD-endemic areas first be tested before meat is eaten and states say that any sick animals should be discarded.

In Montana, for the first time ever, concern about the disease was elevated to high alert. Early in November 2017, a test confirmed Montana’s first-ever case of CWD in a wild cervid. The diagnosis was based on tissue samples taken from a dead mule deer buck harvested near Bridger just north of the Montana-Wyoming state line. Confirmation came ironically on the same day the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department began circulating a draft CWD action plan for public review.

On Nov. 14, 2017, a second dead mule deer buck was confirmed to be CWD-positive. This animal was shot a few miles south of Bridger near Belfry—a tiny town near Red Lodge on the northeastern corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

On November 15, 2017, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced that yet another CWD-positive hunt area had been added to its map of CWD-endemic areas that now blanket most of the state. A white-taiedl deer buck had turned up positive near Meeteetse on the eastern tier of Greater Yellowstone.  “That hunt area and three others recently added are proof that this disease, in terms of landscape it is reaching, continues to expand millions of acres each year,” says Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for the Wyoming state chapter of the Sierra Club. Dorsey, an elk and deer hunter, added this, referencing a map (see it below) showing the progression of the disease in Wyoming that was prepared by the Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. “I see no reason to believe that CWD will not advance through Montana as quickly it has through Wyoming.” 

To see the map, and what it portends, should be a chastening moment for Montana hunters, notes Glenn Hockett of Bozeman, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association that has joined other groups in Wyoming in suing to have the Wyoming feedgrounds closed.
Foreshadowing the spread across Montana? CWD was first diagnosed in southeastern Wyoming (marked in yellow) and over the last three decades has expanded in deer herds. The disease, in November 2017, was diagnosed for the first time ever in Montana wildlife just north of the state border with Wyoming and is now racing toward the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Imagine this map flipped sideways to indicate a possible progression northward into Montana. “I see no reason not to believe that CWD will not advance through Montana as quickly it has through Wyoming,” says Lloyd Dorsey, hunter and conservation director for the Wyoming state chapter of the Sierra Club.
Foreshadowing the spread across Montana? CWD was first diagnosed in southeastern Wyoming (marked in yellow) and over the last three decades has expanded in deer herds. The disease, in November 2017, was diagnosed for the first time ever in Montana wildlife just north of the state border with Wyoming and is now racing toward the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Imagine this map flipped sideways to indicate a possible progression northward into Montana. “I see no reason not to believe that CWD will not advance through Montana as quickly it has through Wyoming,” says Lloyd Dorsey, hunter and conservation director for the Wyoming state chapter of the Sierra Club.
Lucky the elk was two years old when Thorne and Williams died tragically in an auto wreck in 2004. Along with colleagues, Thorne and Williams were key proponents of the elk experiment at Sybille, intended to provide insights into how animals catch CWD, how it is spread and what prospects, if any, there might be for carriers surviving it.

Before proceeding further here, let us again state an important fact that is still true as of November 2017: there has not been a single documented case of a human coming down with CWD or a prion-related disease after eating a CWD-infected deer or elk.

Several experts I interviewed are not optimistic that will always be the case. Given the ability of prion diseases to manifest themselves in different kinds of strains in different mammals, it is likely that eventually the species barrier, currently keeping CWD a deer-family-only disease, will be breached. The rationale behind their thinking will be explored later.

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So what is the most disturbing aspect of the Wyoming study involving Lucky the elk that CWD experts find so unsettling?

Lucky’s wapiti cohort group contracted CWD naturally—simply by being placed in an environment where diseased animals previously had been. Researchers didn’t have to do anything to overtly expose the elk to CWD through feed or injection; they merely kept them in pens where CWD had been present and yet its disease-causing prions persisted after sickened animals were removed. 

Prions, microscopic misshapen CWD proteins, had entered the soil at Sybille, shed through urine, feces, saliva, possibly in tissue decomposition of dead animals, and likely also became bound to surfaces in Sybille’s captive settings. Even modest attempts at decontamination, paralleling what’s happened at other sites in other states, did not kill them off.  Prions are notoriously difficult to destroy.

Today, this is the question—the big one—looming over the heads of public land managers, wildlife officials, private landowners, public health officials, hunters and the general public dealing with the specter of CWD.  It has implications for the northern Rockies and every other corner of North America where CWD has become endemic or will be.

If environmental contamination could happen at Sybille with such devastating results, what could CWD’s arrival on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole and Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds mean? 
These are landscapes where, every year, roughly 22,000 elk arrive and bunch up in high unnatural densities around artificial human-created forage lines. Elk, in fact, are heading to feedgrounds right now.

At the feedgrounds, wapiti hordes will come in close physical contact with each other; they will urinate and defecate onto the artificial feed and available natural grass they are ingesting; in turn, their wastes will seep into the soil.

Not a single elk or deer has turned up to be CWD positive in these wild feedlot settings yet. However, just as Montana knew that CWD’s confirmation in the state was imminent, so, too, do those in charge of the feedground complexes in western Wyoming.

If and when just a single CWD-infected animal arrives, the animal is likely to be asymptomatic as the disease can have long incubation times lasting between months and years in a host.  A doomed elk may appear healthy yet its wastes will get deposited into the ground and linger—for how long no one knows.

With more animals getting exposed and then sickened, prion contamination would, ostensibly, bio-accumulate, becoming established in the land, carried potentially in surface water and, as studies have also demonstrated, possibly taken up in living rangeland plants. (Laboratory research has shown that prions can exist in plants, including tomatoes, alfalfa and corn—one of the most universally-used grains in food production.)
Think of this happening winter after winter, year after year: contamination at the Elk Refuge and feedgrounds would start modestly with one animal that creates a tiny toxic hot spot to which hundreds or thousands of other elk and deer would be possibly exposed over time.
Infected CWD animals don’t even need to come in direct contact with other elk, deer or moose, because they can shed and leave behind infectious prions in the environment. Stricken ungulates only need to have been there.

Think of this happening winter after winter, year after year: contamination at the Elk Refuge and feedgrounds would start modestly with one animal that creates a tiny toxic hot spot to which hundreds or thousands of other elk and deer would be possibly exposed over time.

If infection sets in at the feedgrounds, CWD would also be transported through living animals to distant summer ranges across lines humans draw on maps, seeding prions shed via feces, urine, saliva and death into other landscapes, creating new environmental zones of infection and exposure.

Some Wyoming Game and Fish officials have claimed that, in the wild, under ordinary lower ungulate densities, CWD exists as a low-grade, slow-moving menace. But the Elk Refuge and feedgrounds are anything but normal, experts say, and for those who have studied CWD, managed ungulates and are worried about the disease’s progression, they see the feedgrounds as both a CWD gateway and a disease accelerator.  As you read these words, CWD infection is rising rapidly in mule deer in southeastern Wyoming and there is concern herds will be decimated if not rendered extinct.
“We’ve been courteous to Wyoming and respectful of the argument that states don’t interfere with the way other states do business, but when another state does things that affect the quality of life and resources that citizens in Montana value and hold dear, there comes a time when you run out of patience." —Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission
Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, whose members are appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock, said there is growing indignation toward Wyoming over its operation of feedgrounds. “We’ve been so focused in this state on brucellosis and trying to do spatial and temporal separation to keep elk and bison away from ag producers. CWD was kind of placed on the backburner of worries. Now we have cases and it’s time to confront it head-on,” he said.

Brucellosis, Vermillion noted, is not a population-limiting disease; CWD as it settles in can be devastating and the best strategy is to stop any activities that would make it worse.

“To me, the arrival of CWD is terrifying and it’s heartbreaking the more I learn about the science and the potential it has to harm our game herds which have contributed to the state’s reputation for being the last, best place. Common sense, in the face of a disease event, points to getting rid of the feedgrounds. It’s clear that they [feedgrounds] increase the probability of making CWD’s impact a lot worse and affecting the progression of disease so that it moves into deer and elk a lot faster.”

Vermillion compares CWD to a massive outbreak of exotic weeds originating on one landowner’s property and bearing down on adjacent ranches, threatening to overtake their rangeland.

“We’ve been courteous to Wyoming and respectful of the argument that states don’t interfere with the way other states do business, but when another state does things that affect the quality of life and resources that citizens in Montana value and hold dear, there comes a time when you run out of patience,” he said.

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Before we progress further, a journalist’s acknowledgment is in order. One challenge in writing about CWD is balancing the significant fears being expressed by those involved with tracking the disease against those who claim that because CWD isn’t an ecological or human health problem, it never will be.

The topic that wildlife managers are wary about discussing publicly is this:  If hunters worry in mass about the potential risks of exposing themselves and their families to disease, they may stop hunting and buying licenses, the fees of which fund their agencies. They also note that hunters are a key tool—human harvest of animals—that adds an option managers have for reducing ungulate herds.

Another area of controversy is the reluctance of state wildlife agencies to acknowledge the important role wildlife predators and scavengers—wolves, grizzlies, cougars and coyotes play—in slowing infectious disease progression by killing weak and sickened prey species.  This will be addressed in a coming standalone story.

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As Eric Cole, senior biologist with the Elk Refuge noted in a startling memo circulated in early 2017, CWD’s arrival in western Wyoming is imminent.  And his warning about its advance was corroborated by the disease’s recent diagnosis in mule deer east of Red Lodge, in the Shoshone National Forest between Cody and Yellowstone National Park, and in Wyoming near the towns of Pinedale, Lander, Dubois, and Thayne.

A few years ago, a moose afflicted with CWD was found dead south of Jackson Hole in the southern reaches of Greater Yellowstone, thus giving Wyoming, along with Colorado and Alberta, the dubious distinction of having CWD present in all four of its wild deer family members.
Wyoming, like Montana, has increased the intensity and scope of its surveillance, particularly in areas described as “the western front,” meaning the mountains along the Continental Divide and in wildlife corridors leading into Greater Yellowstone.

Like Montana and Idaho, Wyoming and the Elk Refuge tests animals killed by hunters, roadkills, “sick-looking” animals, and they target individuals that represent different age classes in the herds. Wyoming has collected over 56,000 samples, the vast majority from mule deer. Testing, however, is a useful metric not for stating definitely where CWD is, but where it has been. By the time an animal tests positive for disease, CWD very likely, experts say, has been there awhile.

Now with CWD in Montana and two mule deer coming up positive, there is wide speculation about how the state will respond. Will Montana move to “depopulate”—i.e. destroy all animals within a given locale of where the disease is found?  

If 38 elk out of 39 at Sybille became stricken and died, how might that rate of infection be extrapolated to wild settings?  The elk calves removed from the Elk Refuge and raised at Sybille have a genetic make-up—an MM genotype— that is widespread and the most common in western Wyoming elk herds. Lucky had different genotype—LL—that exists in two percent of a normal population.  Some elk also carry a third genotype (ML) that, for some reason, has a resistance characteristic that delays infection but still is 100 percent lethal.

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For even better reading away from the screen, print off this MoJo story and give a copy to your friends.
For even better reading away from the screen, print off this MoJo story and give a copy to your friends.
Montana has its own checkered past involving hypocrisy with the way it confronts wildlife diseases, says the Gallatin Wildlife Association’s Glenn Hockett.

Montana’s strategy toward confronting another disease, brucellosis, was focused for decades almost exclusively on wandering Yellowstone bison known to be carriers of the Brucella abortus bacteria. However, a panel of scientific experts recently noted that the state has been focusing on the wrong animal. Elk represent the greatest possible threat for wildlife transmitting disease to cattle.

Some argue that CWD should not be discussed as a human health risk because there has never been a documented case of the disease sickening and killing a person. There also has never been a single documented case of a wild Yellowstone bison transmitting brucellosis to a domestic beef cow, yet 10,300 bison, members of the most iconic bison herd in the world, have been felled since 1985—and more will be this winter—based on the mere possibility transmission could happen.

Tens of millions of public tax dollars have been spent targeting and slaughtering wandering park bison based on that premise, but it’s a premise that has been scientifically disproved.

Every case in which brucellosis has been transmitted from wildlife to cattle has involved elk, not bison. As the findings of a major fact-finding study, released in 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences revealed, the greatest threat of possible brucellosis transmission from wildlife to cattle comes from infected elk. The National Academy is the most respected scientific body in the world.
Montana has its own checkered involving hypocrisy with the way it confronts wildlife diseases, says the Gallatin Wildlife Association’s Glenn Hockett.
The Elk Refuge and the Wyoming feedgrounds, its report noted, are also the largest concentrated reservoirs for brucellosis-infected wildlife in the ecosystem.

Within the ranks of professional wildlife managers, there’s no disagreement that feedgrounds have made the amplification of brucellosis in wild elk herds worse.  And there is little disagreement that CWD infection is likely to follow the same pattern.

The coup de grace of Eric Cole’s frank remarks was this, for it has direct implications for Montana and Idaho, whose elk herds mix with those emanating from Jackson Hole: “Various elk migration studies and research on another disease prevalent on the Elk Refuge—brucellosis—suggest that the current feeding regime and its associated high concentrations of elk could be a source of CWD infection for cervids through[out] the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

Along with the National Academy, the most reputable professional wildlife management organizations in the U.S. say that supplemental feeding of wildlife goes against the best management practices of maintaining health in big game herds.

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The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee is comprised of senior managers from all of the federal agencies overseeing public lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and it interfaces with representatives from the states. The organization is supposed to serve as a nexus, touting itself as being at the forefront of bioregional thinking and planning. Yet critics say its discombobulated approach to addressing wildlife diseases reveals major flaws, causing some to wonder why it even exists.

The GYCC, as of yet, has no coordinated strategy for confronting climate change, or dealing with private-land growth issues threatening the environmental health of public lands, or for assessing the swelling impacts of outdoor recreation on wildlife. In addition, it is doing little to reconcile profound contradictions that exist in management philosophy between government agencies whose public lands exist side by side.

What are its goals for the region? Never has it generated a clear vision. And different agencies on many issues remain entrenched in their own bureaucratic silos. In some cases, agencies are working at direct cross-purposes, meaning one agency uses public tax dollars to stake out a management agenda that undermines the conservation missions of other agencies. 
When I phoned the GYCC, headquartered in Bozeman, and asked if there was a strategy for confronting CWD, I was referred to Brian Glaspell, the new chief manager at the National Elk Refuge.

“The general vibe coming from that organization [GYCC] is we both strive to coordinate conservation objectives aimed at the ecosystem scale and support one another in meeting our individual objectives,” Glaspell explained.

So is there an integrated plan of attack for addressing CWD, I asked Glaspell. No, there is not, he said.

Leaders of GYCC, even though they are well aware of the potential severe consequences of CWD striking ecosystem ungulate herds, have been reluctant to pressure the Elk Refuge and the state of Wyoming to close the feedgrounds.

Wyoming’s state management plan, Glaspell says, doesn’t clearly spell out what aggressive actions will be implemented, only vaguely referencing that changes might be warranted when and if CWD arrives. The same criticism is being leveled by conservationists against Montana’s recently proposed CWD strategy. Only Idaho, as yet CWD-free, will discuss the third-rail issue in their Action Plan, which is depopulating all cervids in an infected area.  If CWD clusters begin to be revealed through post-mortem testing, will states move in to kill all of the elk and deer in given locales?

Back in 1996, Beth Williams, Thorne’s wife, responded to reports that CWD was present in a game farm in Saskatchewan. She was asked what she would do if the disease turned up in wild deer.  Her recommendation: aggressive, thorough depopulation of deer.  “You’ll have to be aggressive; remove all sources and all potential movement. Cut wider and deeper than you ever think necessary,” she said. “The deer will come back; but you’ll get one chance. If CWD gets widely established, you’ll have it for a very long time.”  Blow the opportunity to contain it and there is no turning back.

Such a strategy of “killing the herd in order to save it” is as preposterous to some as feeding elk in order to keep them healthy but actually fostering conditions that could lead to their destruction.

When the National Academy released its report on brucellosis, this was one of its highlighted findings: “Evidence suggests that incremental closure of feedgrounds could reduce the prevalence of the disease in the broader elk population and could benefit overall elk health in the long term.  The committee recommended that state and federal land managers take a strategic, stepwise, science-based approach to analyzing and evaluating how the closure of feedgrounds would affect elk health, risk of transmission to cattle, and brucellosis prevalence.”

A scientist on the National Academy review team said it also applies to CWD.

The government entity well positioned to help coordinate and encourage that charge may be the GYCC. How disorganized is the GYCC on the monumentally-important issue of CWD?
Who is in charge of confronting CWD throughout the Greater Yellowstone region? Answer: no one is.
Consider this: Yellowstone National Park Supt. Dan Wenk and his staff—one member of GYCC— are direly afraid of the consequences the disease will have on wildlife in the most famous nature preserve in the world. However, the future of Yellowstone depends on the attitudes and actions taken by her neighbors.

Another GYCC member, Grand Teton National Park, has the same world-class wildlife values in play and it shares a fenceline with both Yellowstone and the Elk Refuge, yet it has been conspicuously silent about CWD’s threat to wildlife.

Meanwhile, another GYCC member, the Elk Refuge, is administered by a sister agency to the Park Service in the Interior Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is carrying out management practices that its own scientists have acknowledged are violating federal law pertaining to wildlife health by keeping the feedgrounds open. Former refuge managers and scientists have, for years, pleaded with their bureaucratic superiors to phase-out feeding, only to be overruled, in large part owed to opposition from Wyoming politicians.

Still another federal agency and GYCC member, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been complicit with the state of Wyoming in ignoring the science and keeping the feedgrounds open. As has the Bureau of Land Management, another GYCC member, under the Department of the Interior.

On top of it all, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho each have separate CWD action plans that are vague and theoretical when it comes to dealing with CWD. Who is in charge of confronting CWD throughout the Greater Yellowstone region? Answer: no one is.

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Piecemeal approaches to managing big landscapes like Greater Yellowstone are costly, inefficient and ineffective, especially with wildlife issues. The legacy of management approaches to logging, mining, and oil and gas development on national forests and BLM lands, and livestock grazing inside Grand Teton Park are evidence of that.

In the defense of Elk Refuge manager Brian Glaspell, who recently arrived at the refuge, he didn’t create the problem; he inherited it. The people who have been calling the shots are way, way above his pay grade.
Montana State Senator Mike Phillips says there is a person who could break the logjam of inaction: it’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke, a Montanan, holds ultimate sway over the Park Service, BLM, and pivotally, the Fish and Wildlife Service. He could issue an executive order, and he could request that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, who has jurisdiction over the Forest Service, mandate change.

“Secretary Zinke could make it clear to the National Elk Refuge that feeding must be stopped and his Interior Department could lead the charge into a new era of enlightened wildlife management.” Phillips said. “The Secretary has said he cares about the environment and wants to be a man of action. Here’s the perfect obvious place for him to demonstrate it, to do something that’s vitally important to the interests of sportsmen and all wildlife-loving Americans.”

Phillips, a nationally noted wildlife biologist whose day job is leading the Turner Endangered Species Fund, formerly worked as a canid specialist for both the Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service.  He co-authored a joint resolution in the state legislature that condemned Wyoming for its continuation of artificial feeding. On February 24, 2017 in a rare display of bi-partisanship, the Montana Senate passed the resolution 50-0, calling upon Wyoming to stop its elk feeding programs.

The impacts of CWD will reach into every corner of Greater Yellowstone, across state, county and community lines, affecting quality of life for the region’s 450,000 residents who share a common love for wildlife values. It will affect hunters and wildlife watchers, safari company operators, and the experience known to millions of visitors each year.

“With CWD upon us in Montana now, the number one goal should be to end the largest wildlife feeding program on the planet; it’s a ticking time bomb and its destructive aspects are well known,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director at the Montana Wildlife Federation and former environmental journalist.

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Behind closed doors, local depopulation scenarios have been discussed as  options not just to swiftly remove CWD-infected animals but to prevent perpetual CWD contamination zones from being created in the environment.

During the 1990s when Montana voters outlawed private game farms due to zoonotic disease concerns, Idaho too started to worry about CWD; in fact, one aspect of Idaho’s CWD action plan lists aggressive deposition within a radius of where CWD turns up.

Montana prohibits the feeding of wild elk. Idaho still permits it during harsh winters and has sent signals it may end the practice. The outlawing of feeding is based on concerns, expressed by both states’ Department of Livestock, that feeding wildlife increases the incidence of brucellosis and puts game animals at risk to catching other virulent diseases, including CWD and bovine tuberculosis.

In an article written for The Wildlife Society, retired Elk Refuge biologist  Bruce Smith noted that “Colorado tried to reduce CWD in wild mule deer through experimental herd reductions. Wisconsin went a step further: After finding CWD in deer in 2002, the state’s Department of Natural Resources sought complete eradication by killing thousands of white-tailed deer with special hunts and culling programs designed to reduce deer densities. Unfortunately, those states’ efforts have met with limited success.”

In states like Wisconsin, wildlife officials have, at times, resorted to depopulating local white-tail deer herds and incinerating the carcasses to kill prions but the geographic area where CWD is found in Wisconsin continues to expand. Why? Most experts say because of environmental contamination, exacerbated too by the fact that property owners feeding deer still happens prolifically in Wisconsin.
Montana State Senator Mike Phillips says there is a person who could break the logjam of inaction: it’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. "Secretary Zinke could make it clear to the National Elk Refuge that feeding must be stopped and his Interior Department could lead the charge into a new era of enlightened wildlife management.”
Smith added that “in Illinois, on the other hand, 10 years of government culling of white-tailed deer in areas of new CWD infections has limited disease prevalence to 1 percent. By comparison, prevalence climbed to 5 percent after localized culling in Wisconsin ceased in 2007. A prescription to similarly limit CWD infections of elk crowded on feedgrounds would compel the culling of very large numbers of animals.”

Picture this scenario playing out in Jackson Hole along U.S. Highway 191: sharpshooters enlisted to basically destroy a significant percentage of the most iconic elk herd in America, carried out on the National Elk Refuge.  Wapiti would have to be mowed down and removed in order to prevent the refuge from turning into a massive contamination zone.

In evidence submitted during a lawsuit brought by EarthJustice attorney Tim Preso against the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Elk Refuge, he introduced a document in which a regional refuge chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service admitted that even reduced feeding operation would, with CWD present, threaten to “create a Super Fund Disease Toxic Site on the [National Elk] refuge that would remain contaminate for a very long time.”

When former Elk Refuge Manager Barry Reiswig was asked by superiors in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office if he had a plan after the first CWD case was confirmed, he said, “(1) Dig a big hole with a bulldozer or obtain an incinerator. (2) You round up and shoot all suspect [diseased] animals.  (3) You cover the hole with dirt or incinerate all killed animals.”

Wyoming, in its recent CWD action plan, does not prioritize de-population but what is its strategy for attempted containment? The state already is carrying out two things that contrary to what most experts say is responsible wildlife management: it is running feedgrounds and shooting predators, namely wolves, allowing open season on lobos across 85 percent of the state, for any reason, at any time of day, by any means. The state knows what is coming.

Two years ago, Game and Fish representatives reached out to managers of the Teton County trash transfer station, inquiring about the possibility of operating an incinerator there to process the carcasses of CWD-infected elk and deer. Incineration is the only sure way of destroying prions; however, what good is it to incinerate carcasses if those same animals, over the course of their abbreviated living lives, were shedding prions via urine, feces and saliva across the landscape?

In Danny Schmidt’s documentary Feeding the Problem, Jackson Hole rancher Brad Mead, brother of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said, “From what I’ve heard about Chronic Wasting Disease, it’s not a pretty thing to watch. And I have to believe that tourism would suffer, a lot, if people driving by on the highway past the Elk Refuge saw animals dying from Chronic Wasting Disease in the hundreds or the thousands.”  

To prevent that scene from materializing, which would be a public relations disaster for a valley that promotes itself to the world as a mecca for wildlife watching, how will agencies respond?

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Steve Kallin, Brian Glaspell’s recent predecessor at the Elk Refuge who retired from his post in January 2017, validated an assessment from the Sierra Club’s Dorsey in saying the consequences of CWD’s arrival could be devastating. It isn’t like there will be one epic dying event; herds will winnow over time and giving animals more feed will not mitigate the mortality; in fact, experts say it could intensify the impact of CWD’s arrival. And as Dorsey says, the first animal bringing disease to the feedgrounds isn’t likely to be an elk but a deer.

“We have to remember this is an always fatal disease for cervids,” Kallin told me. “It’s slow moving but it’s a serious disease. We have to look at it honestly and pragmatically and address it head on. This is not a manufactured scare tactic to promote a political agenda.”
The impacts of CWD will reach into every corner of Greater Yellowstone, across state, county and community lines, affecting quality of life for the region’s 450,000 residents who share a common love for wildlife values. It will affect hunters and wildlife watchers, safari company operators, and the experience known to millions of visitors each year.
Wyoming wildlife filmmaker Shane Moore, whose Emmy-award-winning cinematic work is known around the world, and who has made tracking the science of CWD a personal passion, says the general public isn’t aware of how “game-changing” CWD’s arrival in Greater Yellowstone could be.

The impacts will register in wildlife and for people, from tourists to hunters, who travel from far away to experience the ecosystem’s charismatic deer-family species and the things that eat them.

Moore and Dorsey have been outspoken in their reproach of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Their concerns are shared by Reiswig, Smith and Dr. Thomas Roffe, former national chief of wildlife health for the Fish and Wildlife Service.  In Yellowstone, managers have no plans for how they will deal with haggard-looking elk and mule deer in the spring that might be thin from enduring a winter in Yellowstone or potentially stricken with CWD.

Will they shoot the animal? Will they test all winterkilled animals?  Will they remove carcasses on the ground that serve as valuable food sources for predators and scavengers?  Will they start marking the place where CWD-positive elk have fallen and test the soil for prions?  If CWD strikes the Lamar Valley and the northern range, which has been compared to a mini-American version of the Serengeti, how will it disrupt the food chain?  Park officials don’t know what they’ll do.

At a wildlife disease symposium on brucellosis hosted by the National Academies of Science in the summer of 2015, P.J. White, Yellowstone’s chief of wildlife and aquatic resources, made reference to CWD: “Brucellosis isn't the only disease issue in town.  We have CWD about 40 miles from [Yellowstone] in mule deer.  Which means it's probably already in the park, we haven't detected it yet."

Just a few months later, a mule deer infected with CWD was shot by a hunter about a dozen linear miles from Yellowstone’s eastern border. A mule deer can easily cover that distance between in a couple of hours. Another CWD mule deer was identified in Star Valley, Wyoming near the Idaho state line.  CWD is bearing down on the heart of Greater Yellowstone from three directions.

° ° °

Dr. Don Davis, a former researcher in veterinary medicine at Texas A & M and a defender of captive game farming of wildlife, believes fears surrounding CWD are overblown. He sent out a number of op-ed pieces to newspapers this fall. Among the points Davis emphasizes are these: “First, CWD does not affect people. It affects deer, elk, and moose, but there are no documented cases in people. This isn't unusual; there are lots of things that affect cats, dogs, horses, and wildlife that don't affect us, and vice versa,” he writes. “Second, CWD has been around for decades. It was first detected in the wild 30 years ago in Colorado. Not only is the deer population still strong in the Centennial State, but so is the hunting culture.”

Actually, the reality of the portrait Davis paints is not nearly as sanguine in Colorado for deer and elk. For years, Davis worked on various advisory panels making recommendations for how wandering Yellowstone bison should be managed in Montana. Ironically, some of those panels helped elevate an atmosphere of fear, exploited by Montana’s Department of Livestock and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of park bison.
 
Where Dr. Davis downplays the risk of CWD, citing lack of evidence, others say that waiting for an outbreak of CWD to strike wildlife or the disease to reach people is naïve and irresponsible.

° ° °

In early 2017, Dr. Valerius Geist, David Clausen, former chair of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, Vince Crichton, former co-chair of  Canada’s National Wildlife Disease Strategy, and Darrel Rowledge, director of Alliance for Public Wildlife, published a white paper titled "The Challenge of CWD: Insidious and Dire".  You can read the full report here and read their executive summary, published at Mountain Journal, by clicking here.

“Left unchecked, the prospects for wildlife are bleak. CWD has clear population impacts; some models suggest extinction. Disproportionate impact on mature males carries implications for hunters and wildlife economies let alone populations. Still more bad news: Efforts for vaccines have failed, and evolutionary or adaptive salvation is unlikely and would be too late in any case,” they write. “CWD is now deemed to be the largest-ever mass of infectious prions in global history, and experts sum up the threat (to wildlife, agriculture, our economies, and potentially to human health) in two words: ‘insidious and dire.’”

They estimate that hunting families in North America are presently consuming between 7,000 and 15,000 CWD-infected animals annually. The number is growing exponentially. Many are probably unaware their harvested animals are CWD carriers.

If readers aren’t concerned about CWD yet, they will be after digesting what’s in the report—a distillation of both comments from experts and articles published in the scientific literature. One cause for concern, off the radar screen of ranchers and even food consumers, is the ability of prions to bind with plants, such as alfalfa (hay). Therefore, it means not only could exposure increase via plant material being consumed by livestock (which people eat) but  also products that show up in restaurants and the grocery store. And what about the widespread practice of moving hay around the landscape? Would hay produced in a CWD area need to be tested?

The report features excerpts from Dr. Christopher Johnson, a scientist with the US. Geological Survey: “Vegetation is ubiquitous in CWD-contaminated environments and plants are known to absorb a variety of substances from soil, ranging from nutrients to contaminants. The uptake of proteins from soil into plants has been documented for many years and we have been investigating the uptake of prions into plants in vitro. Using laser scanning confocal microscopy, we observed root uptake of fluorescently-tagged, abnormal prion protein in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, as well as the crop plants alfalfa (Medicago sativa), barley (Hordeum vulgare) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum).”

Studies showed that prion uptake occurred in roots and was transferred to stems and leaves of those plants as well as corn. “Both stems and leaves of A. thaliana grown in culture media containing prions are infectious when injected into mice, and oral bioassays are underway for A. thaliana and other plants,” Johnson wrote. “Our results suggest that prions are taken up by plants and that contaminated plants may represent a previously unrecognized risk of human, domestic species and wildlife exposure to CWD and scrapie agents.”

How will farmers and ranchers respond to elk and deer in their pastures if they suspect the wild animals could be infecting the soil where their livestock eats grass and alfalfa and other crops grow? What kind of a backlash could there be against public wildlife?

Having examined what the authors describe as a sloppy and lackaidaisical approach to containing CWD, they call for urgency by government agencies in applying the precautionary principle.  Both public wildlife and human health are at risk, they say. (Note to readers: the Alberta Environment and Parks Department has one of the best databases for tracking the progression of CWD in wild ungulate herds). 
How will farmers and ranchers respond to elk and deer in their pastures if they suspect the wild animals could be infecting the soil where their livestock eats grass, and alfalfa and other crops grow?
“Where there is a potential for severe or irreversible harm, especially to public wellbeing and interest, an absence of scientific consensus or proof of harm cannot be used to allow or maintain policies or actions underlying the risk. In such cases, the burden to ‘prove safety’ falls on those advocating the potentially harmful policy or action,” they write, referring to both game farms and feeding of wildlife.

“The standard of ‘severe or irreversible harm’ is a very high bar; yet [a bar] CWD has long surpassed regarding public wildlife. It is only against that backdrop that the potential transference of CWD to people can be reasonably considered. We must consider risk, consequences, and even worst case scenarios. The fact is that prion diseases are described by physicians and victim’s families as aggressive, horrific, and dreadful.”

° ° °

Conspicuously missing in action on the feedground issue is, ironically, the largest elk conservation group in the world, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation headquartered in Missoula.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium on brucellosis in Billings, Montana sponsored by the Elk Foundation. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s top national wildlife veterinarian Tom Roffe was there, so were senior natural resource managers from the Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and the tri-states, including Scott Talbott, today director of Wyoming Game and Fish. CWD was a red-button issue.

The overwhelming consensus from scientists at the meeting was that artificial feeding had to stop in Wyoming, a position that for Talbott was considered politically untenable. David Allen, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s president and CEO, refused to back shuttering the feedgrounds because of pushback from outfitters and guides in Wyoming, even though scientists who condemn the practice. It was recently announced that Allen will be leaving the Elk Foundation in 2018.

Despite the Elk Foundation refusing to challenge Wyoming into staking out the true elk conservation position—closing the feedgrounds—the hunting community is concerned.  A coalition called The CWD Alliance was created by the Boone and Crockett Club, Mule Deer Foundation and Elk Foundation in 2002, a decade and a half ago. 

An advisory circulated by the Alliance says this, “Implications for free-ranging populations of deer and elk may be even more significant. Agencies do not translocate deer and elk from CWD endemic areas. Ongoing surveillance programs are expensive and draw resources from other wildlife management needs. Perhaps most important, impacts of CWD on population dynamics of deer and elk are presently unknown. Modeling suggests that CWD could substantially harm infected cervid populations by lowering adult survival rates and destabilizing long-term population dynamics.”

The advisory added, “Ultimately, public and agency concerns and perceptions about human health risks associated with all TSEs may erode participation in sport hunting in the endemic area, and also may have dramatic influence on management of free-ranging cervid herds where CWD is endemic. It follows that responsible wildlife management and animal health agencies should continue working to understand and limit distribution and occurrence of CWD in free-ranging and farmed cervids.”

Former Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith brings attention to another issue, that U.S. taxpayers through the feeding program are unknowingly subsidizing elk outfitters and guides. “Feedgrounds boost elk numbers but at extraordinarily high costs,” he wrote in his article for The Wildlife Society.
“Just wait, when CWD takes hold in those herds, that’s when the blame game is going to be begin. That’s when you see people who were in charge start to dive for cover, but it will be too late.” —the late Jack Ward Thomas, former chief of U.S. Forest Service, elk biologist and adviser to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
“The state of Wyoming, for example, spends more than $2 million annually to feed elk and to study and manage feedground disease. This typically produces an annual deficit above revenues derived from the sale of licenses to hunt elk west of the Continental Divide, where the state’s feedgrounds are located,” he said. “The total runs far higher because U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for most management costs at the National Elk Refuge. As a wildlife professional, I find the ecological costs of this agricultural model of managing public resources most disturbing.”

Dr. Tom Roffe, the former national chief of wildlife health for America's most prominent public wildlife agency, is not the kind of person who derives satisfaction from having his fears proved right. Not long after that meeting in Billings, after years of pressuring the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop feeding on the Elk Refuge, he retired to a little horse ranch in Montana. He told me he wasn’t bitter about having his warnings fall upon deaf ears, but that once upon a time in his career he had believed that speaking the truth would prevail.

Over the years I’ve spoken with a number of prominent sportsmen, including people closely associated with the Elk Foundation such as the late elk biologist Jack Ward Thomas, who was also a onetime chief of the Forest Service. Thomas attended the meeting in Billings mentioned above along with Roffe.

In his own off-color way, Thomas told me that Wyoming’s pushback “was the epitome of short-sightedness” and he predicted: “Just wait, when CWD takes hold in those herds, that’s when the blame game is going to be begin. That’s when you see people who were in charge start to dive for cover, but it will be too late.”

° ° °

When Rowledge and I spoke recently he had just harvested a game animal in the Canadian Rockies.  He and Geist spent a lot of time during the 1990s talking with Thorne, Williams and Robert Lanka. Lanka today is statewide wildlife and habitat management supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. 

Rowledge says Lanka played a seminal role in amassing a report on the threat that zoonotic diseases, which become rife in game farms, pose to wildlife populations. And it was on the strength of that report that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department voted to deny Tom Dorrance’s permit to open a game ranch in Wyoming where hunters could shoot exotic species and animals could be sold for their wildlife parts. The data was used too by wildlife officials in Montana to make the case for closing down game farms.

Thorne could become cantankerous and short in dealing with conservationists and people like Smith and Roffe who were saying Wyoming needed to shutter its feedgrounds. And he argued that CWD would not seriously impact deer and elk at the population level.

In July 2002, Williams, Thorne, Dr. Terry Kreeger and two others published a peer-reviewed paper titled Chronic Wasting Disease of Deer and Elk: A Review With Recommendations for Management in The Journal of Wildlife Management. One of the co-authors was Dr. Mike Miller, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and a noted CWD authority mentioned in the first part of this series.

“CWD could have a dramatic influence on management of free-ranging cervid herds where it is present. It follows that responsible wildlife management and animal health agencies must act to limit distribution and occurrence of CWD in free-ranging and farmed cervids, and should continue working to better understand the biology and potential methods for control of CWD,” they wrote.

Later, Kreeger, who succeed Thorne after he died in 2004, was lead author on another paper in which the authors observed, “Chronic wasting disease will probably be one of the significant wildlife management challenges in the 21st century. The disease not only has serious wildlife ramifications, but economic, political, and social impacts as well. Although the ‘need’ to blame someone for a problem seems to be inherent in humans, accusations and finger pointing do little to effect a solution. Nobody intentionally caused or spread CWD. But now that it is spreading throughout North America, we must all work together to minimize its impact on our natural resources.”

For Dorsey of the Sierra Club, he is baffled.  Williams, Thorne and Kreeger spelled out the problems. They knew that elk feedgrounds were, and are, problematic where disease is concerned. Yet time and again they resisted any push to abolish feedgrounds.  As for blame, Dorsey asks who—what individual or individuals—will take responsibility for knowing what the right thing to do was, yet deliberately did the opposite? Should responsibility, accountability and potential liability fall with state wildlife vets, with public land managers, or governors?

“Tom Thorne died before the most recent data emerged, showing that CWD in fact is a serious threat to elk to Rocky Mountain National Park, and that is hitting mule deer in southeastern Wyoming,” Rowledge said. “He was a thinker who would adapt this opinion to new scientific information as it emerged.”

A study in Rocky Mountain National Park showed that CWD has a prevalence rate of 12.9 percent in elk there and concluded CWD-caused mortality can exceed natural rates of mortality, reduce survival of adult females, and decrease population growth of elk herds. The infection rate there was one percent in park elk in the early 1990s and today is the leading cause of death among adult females.

So desperate is the conversation about how to contain CWD-related environmental contamination that experiments are being undertaken by which controlled burns are being lit to try to kill prions in soils and vegetation.

I asked Rowledge, a hunter, about how he responds to state wildlife officials who say one must not sound an alarm about CWD because it could cause sportsmen and women to stop hunting?

In the 1990s, Rowledge was labeled a CWD fear monger. “Back then, we heeded the claims from people who said don’t speak out too loud because it might cause hunters to stop hunting,” he said, pointing to Wisconsin. There, in early 2002, CWD was discovered in three white-tailed deer. Nine months later, the number of hunting licenses fell by 90,000, resulting in a revenue drop of $3 million and loss of economic impact of $50 million attributed to hunters not going afield and making equipment expenditures with local business.  He cited responses from a study that examined hunter attitudes. Some 64 percent said they would quit hunting altogether if there’s ever a confirmed case of CWD being transmitted from cervids to humans.
“I think we made mistakes and one of the mistakes is we weren’t vocal enough. We were too cautious. If we want to maintain hunting, we need to maintain healthy wildlife populations and that means responsible, science-driven wildlife management.  We need to understand what these diseases mean, not only for wildlife but human health." —Darrel Rowledge, hunter and CWD policy expert from Alberta
What he next said is surprising. “I think we made mistakes and one of the mistakes is we weren’t vocal enough. We were too cautious. If we want to maintain hunting, we need to maintain healthy wildlife populations and that means responsible, science-driven wildlife management.  We need to understand what these diseases mean, not only for wildlife but human health. But one thing we are not talking about with prion diseases is how they affect public perception and how that affects markets. When and if CWD reaches that level, the problems we are dealing with now will be an order of magnitude greater. We need to stop living in denial.”

He and his co-authors in “The Challenge of CWD: Insidious and Dire” write: “Trustees accept and bear a burden of responsibility to protect and defend the interests of their constituents, and those of future generations. Where so-called hard sciences probe the vital questions of ‘what is’ and ‘what was,’ governance, or political science, must build from that foundation to confront the equally challenging questions of ‘what if.’ “

Dorsey asks: If science isn’t driving decisions being made about CWD and wildlife in Wyoming and Greater Yellowstone, then what and who is? He believes the public deserves to know the names of the actual people who are overriding the science. Rowledge adds that people knowingly violating the public trust and the precautionary principle ought to be held to account and those at the top of the list are elected officials such as governors and the heads of state wildlife management agencies.

° ° ° 

During the past few years, some Wyoming Game and Fish officials expressed optimism that hope for dealing with CWD might reside not in shutting down the feedgrounds but in development of a vaccine. This year, the results of that effort were reported and they are bleak. Not only did the vaccine not prove to protect cervids from catching CWD but innoculations caused some cervids to actually get sick and die.
Which leads us back to Lucky. In that study involving her at Sybille, the wild elk calves taken from the Elk Refuge were shown to have three different genetic makeups. Most had MM genotypes and are representative of about 70 percent of wild wapiti in the Elk Refuge herd. All of those died relatively quickly from CWD when exposed to environmental contamination.

Then there were elk with ML genotypes, representing about 28 percent of the herd. They survived longer before getting infected and succombing but they all died, too.

And then there was Lucky, a rarity with an LL genotype. Just two percent of elk have a genetic code like her.

Kreeger tried to put a positive spin on the results when he still worked for the agency. His is a belief in “evolutionary adaptation”, i.e. the premise that CWD infected mothers will produce offspring before they die and CWD-resistant elk will be giving birth to seed-stock to rebuild populations if they crash.

Lucky and some of the other elk cows produced offspring and Kreeger speculated it was possible that reproduction could outpace death caused by CWD. However, the model showed that over a century, hunting would need to be curtailed if not eliminated and that elk with genomes MM and ML would likely vanish.  

To put that in perspective, what if in a human community, 3800 out of 3900 people died due to a pandemic like the Black Plague and the restoration of civilization would rest on the surviving 100?

Would that be a cause for optimism or existential gravity? For Rowledge, it’s the latter. As he and his fellow authors note, healthy wildlife populations are more resilient when they have more genetic diversity. CWD actually destroys and reduces diversity, leaving surviving gene pools potentially more vulnerable to other maladies and possibly less capable to deal with environmental factors.  He says it’s an incredibly risky proposition to bet on one genotype; moreover, it completely evades the reality that CWD would mean the loss of elk and deer abundance, as we know it today, by the end of this century.  

In fact, some of Kreeger’s associates have in recent years been mentioning the dreaded “e-word”—extinction—in recent discussions of what the future may hold for today’s dominant elk herds in Greater Yellowstone.  That will be explored in an upcoming part of this series.

Can and should the persistence of some of America’s greatest elk herds, in America’s most iconic ecosystem, be pinned on the survival of Lucky? How did Lucky’s story end?

Within the last few weeks, I was in touch with Brant Schumaker, who was involved with the decade-long study of Lucky and with Dr. Mary Wood, Wyoming’s state wildlife veterinarian and the successor to Kreeger and Thorne. I asked them about Lucky: was she still alive or dead? Did she outrace the plague as an animal with hyper-rare, hopeful immunity and what is the status of her offspring? They were coy and wouldn’t tell me. They only said that she is part of a new study.  I asked for an updated photograph of Lucky to use in this story. Lucky is, after all, a named animal and arguably a celebrity. My request went unanswered.

I am still waiting to hang a picture of Lucky on the wall.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  
Read Part One in Mountain Journal's ongoing series on Chronic Wasting Disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem titled Greater Yellowstone's Coming Plague

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below.
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