LANDER — The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has approved changes to hunting rules that will allow the Game and Fish Department to quickly respond to possible new outbreaks of wildlife diseases such as chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Terry Cleveland, assistant chief of the agency’s Wildlife Division, said the recent onset of CWD in several western states including Wyoming and other wildlife diseases that may be found in the future prompted the agency to change the depredation prevention hunting season regulations.

He said the agency had no way under the old rules to set a depredation hunt to remove infected big game animals if an outbreak occurs.

“We need to have some ability to harvest animals in specific areas for disease purposes when warranted,” Cleveland told commissioners at a meeting Dec. 5.

“If a hot spot crops up in areas where we historically haven’t had CWD … this will give us some ability to go in there and decrease big game populations to reduce the prevalence of the disease and to hopefully stop the spread,” he said.

“We’re thinking at this time it can not only apply to CWD, but to any new diseases … that show up in the future,” he said.

Chronic Wasting Disease is a brain disease that infects deer and elk. It is a major threat to the health of big game animal population. Animals that develop CWD lose weight, drink a lot of water and seem to be either unafraid, or can’t recognize humans.There is no known cure, and the disease is always fatal.

The disease has been endemic in a 12,000-square-mile area of southeastern Wyoming for more than 30 years, but recent outbreaks around the country have alarmed wildlife officials and turned the disease into a national crisis. Last month, CWD was found west of the Continental Divide for the first time in Wyoming.

Cleveland said under current regulations, the department is allowed to set depredation prevention hunting seasons for big game animals causing damage to land, cultivated crops, extraordinary damage to grass, livestock, and bees, honey and/or hives.

He said the change in the regulations will allow the agency to use resident sportsmen drawn from a pool of hunters to conduct the harvest whenever a depredation hunt season is approved. The department would generate revenues from the hunt as well.

“The big advantage is that this does supply the department a great deal of latitude,” Cleveland said. “We can now have the public do the harvest rather than have department personnel do the reduction,” he said.

Cleveland said when a depredation prevention hunt season is implemented in an effort to control disease, there will be a mandatory hunter harvest check by department personnel to collect biological samples to test for the disease.

“We’ll analyze the sample and ascertain the prevalence of the disease,” he said.

Cleveland said under the rule change, the agency will be able to implement a depredation season for disease purposes within five days.

“It won’t be a difficult hunt,” he predicted.

The agency held seven public meetings last month to gather input on the proposal. Cleveland said “basically the input was minimal … and we got no correspondence.”

The commission approved a state plan for combating CWD in September. The plan will coordinate, guide and expand upon the state’s current efforts to control the spread of CWD. One of the plan’s recommendations was a change in the depredation hunt season rules.