Wyoming only monitors spread of chronic wasting disease while some call for action.

In December 2006, Laramie resident Ken Mills was hunting with two friends near the Lincoln Monument just off Interstate 80 when they spotted a herd of elk huddled together.

Mills drew a bead on a cow elk and pulled the trigger. Down it went.

“It wasn’t very fat and it was not all that big,” he said. “I thought it was a young animal.”

Mills and his friends gutted and quartered his kill and he took the head to the necropsy room at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, where he works as a microbiologist. There, lab technicians made incisions just beneath the animal’s jaw, removed its lymph nodes, and sent them down the hall to Hank Edwards, a wildlife disease specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The next day, Mills got the bad news. The cow he shot was infected with chronic wasting disease.

“My wife simply told me, ‘You can eat it, but you’re not feeding it to the kids and grandkids,’” he said. “I didn’t eat it. I threw it out.”

Now that Wyoming Game and Fish scientists say chronic wasting disease is headed to Jackson Hole, hunters, outfitters and wildlife watchers are unsure how the always-fatal, seemingly unstoppable neurological disease will affect the local elk population and the industries those elk support. Unlike with mad cow disease, researchers don’t think humans can contract chronic wasting disease from deer and elk, but the science isn’t conclusive.

Some researchers believe a link hasn’t been found because of a reluctance to look for it. At least one study suggests that federal researchers have resisted performing autopsies of people who might otherwise be diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of chronic wasting disease, because of biohazard concerns. Whether increased surveillance will find a link between Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and chronic wasting disease is uncertain but so far seems unlikely, according to the authors.

Edwards processes nearly 5,000 tissue samples a year looking for the disease. At his laboratory in Laramie, Edwards puts lymph node tissue, most of which is supplied by hunters, through a series of biochemical tests that look for a malformed prion protein.

If some or all of the tests turn out positive, Edwards sends a letter to the hunter notifying him or her that his or her game animal has chronic wasting disease. Hunters can also check their sample on the Wyoming Game and Fish Web site.

Since 1998, when the state first started looking for chronic wasting disease in earnest, Edwards has watched it spread from the southeast corner of the state north to Upton, west past Rawlins, and northwest to Lovell and Thermopolis. It is headed, inevitably, toward northwest Wyoming, site of more than 20 state-run elk winter feedgrounds.

Edwards says the spread looked dramatic, perhaps because the state was looking harder.

“Now we’re looking just as hard as we were four to five years ago,” Edwards said. “Now we can say it’s spreading. It’s not a function of us looking harder.”

Part of the trick is figuring out whether a positive sample means the herd, or just an individual animal, is infected.

“It’s difficult to know if you’re shooting deer that are migrating through or are you detecting the disease in an area where it is established,” he said. “In reality, that is a very, very slow moving disease. We may get to the feedgrounds next year; it may take 30 years.”

As for a rapid decline in the elk population once chronic wasting disease hits the feedgrounds, Edwards says, “We have no evidence that that’s going to happen. But we don’t have any data, either.”

Regardless, Edwards agrees with Wyoming Game and Fish researcher Terry Kreeger that chronic wasting disease likely isn’t a big concern for Wyoming feedgrounds, mostly because the disease behaves much differently in elk than deer.

“There’s something different about this disease in elk,” he said. “Maybe this disease is not efficient in elk. Prevalence rates oscillate in elk, not in deer. Something is going on.”

It’s unknown, too, how hunters might react if the disease becomes widespread in big game in the Yellowstone area, and whether the outfitting industry could survive a scare over a potentially life-threatening disease. Despite those looming questions, state wildlife managers don’t seem overly concerned.

“I think this is a disease that we’re going to have to learn to live with, because right now we’ve got no way to stop it,” Edwards said.

Conservationists argue that, when it comes to chronic wasting disease, science is overwhelmed by politics. Living with the disease in a healthy, natural ecosystem is much different from the scenarios that could occur on a crowded feedground.

Given the potential for spread in such locations, and the impact the disease could have on the outdoors community in northwest Wyoming, the state’s protocol for increased monitoring in the event of a chronic wasting disease outbreak is a “very pathetic plan,” said Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

“It’s simply not worth the gamble,” Camenzind said of not acting immediately to combat the disease. “The ripple effect through our social community and our environmental community is going to be tremendous. Keeping it under control is the best we can hope for right now, and that means spreading our animals out” by phasing out feedgrounds.

Lloyd Dorsey, Jackson representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, likened phasing out the feedgrounds to boosting a patient’s immune response: It won’t necessarily stop the disease, but it will help.

“Phasing out those dense concentrations of vulnerable wildlife will ensure flexibility in dealing with this disease and others that arrive,” he said. “Using that as a foundation for moving forward undoubtedly is the best way to achieve healthy, free ranging wildlife populations.”

Dorsey called Edwards’ and Kreeger’s assertions that chronic wasting disease won’t cause a significant impact in the region “a position of denial.” The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has repeatedly warned private citizens against feeding wildlife in its own literature, including an article in Wyoming Wildlife News called “Feeding Wildlife: A recipe for disaster.”

“The state appears to be hung up on trying to justify maintaining a paradigm that they themselves recognize as unhealthy,” he said. “We can’t use the same mind-set to solve these problems that designed the feedground system in the first place.”

Like Camenzind, Dorsey took the Wyoming Game and Fish management plan for chronic wasting disease to task.

“The CWD management plan on the part of the state, as well as the brucellosis management plan on the part of the state, are woefully incomplete,” he said. “They’re missing a solution that goes to the root of the problem.”

The root of the problem, namely feedgrounds, could spread the disease to nearby reserves, including Grand Teton National Park. Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist there, says he has serious concerns about chronic wasting disease infecting the Jackson Elk Herd.

“We concur with the view that it’s a matter of when not if,” he said. “The park is very concerned about what the future potential effects that CWD might have on the Jackson Elk Herd. The elk that are part of the Jackson herd are part of Grand Teton National Park’s elk. Whatever affects them is going to affect us.”

What living with chronic wasting disease looks like on the National Elk Refuge is yet another unanswered question. Retired National Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith says the fact chronic wasting disease doesn’t kill elk right away isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Feeding the issue

“It’s almost better if you have a disease that’s acute, something that kills them rapidly,” he said. “The fact that it doesn’t kill them rapidly means that sick and infected animals can continue to shed prions.”

The feedgrounds are perfect for spreading chronic wasting disease because the animals are drawn back for several months of free meals year after year, Smith says. This prolonged exposure means the prions could start to accumulate on National Elk Refuge soils.

If elk on the refuge transmit the disease at the same rate as those at Rocky Mountain National Park, that could mean close to 900 sick and dying animals of roughly 8,000 on winter feed at any given time. But regardless of whether elk die in vast numbers, there’s little doubt a chronic wasting disease infection in Jackson Hole will have implications that reach beyond the health of the herd.

Shoal Creek Outfitters owner Scott Millward leads between 40 and 45 elk and deer hunters from camps in the Hoback and the Teton Wilderness a year. As president of the Jackson Hole Outfitters and Guides Association, he called chronic wasting disease in Teton County a “big concern” but said the remedy isn’t as simple as just closing the feedgrounds.

“It’s an issue and we don’t know what to do,” he said. “We do support the feeding program, because without it we would have starving elk. It’s kind of one of those things you just have to wait and see and go business as normal until it does happen.”

Millward said he’s more concerned about brucellosis, a bacterial infection that causes elk to abort their calves, than he is with chronic wasting disease. Not only that, but he said closing the feedgrounds would cause elk to range farther, increasing the likelihood that they could commingle with cattle and spread brucellosis.

“We’ve built on the habitat in Teton County,” he said. “Unfortunately, the good elk habitat is where they continue to build.”

But conservationists like Dorsey and Camenzind say there could be enough natural forage to feed Jackson’s elk herd if state and federal officials follow through with plans to reduce elk numbers. The elk refuge’s Bison and Elk Management Plan, for instance, calls for 5,000 elk and 500 bison on the National Elk Refuge instead of the current population of more than 8,000 elk and nearly 1,000 bison.

Unpublished studies performed by Dorsey show that elk could use a significant amount of forage in the Gros Ventre drainage instead of the area’s three elk feedgrounds.

Chris Warburton, co-owner of the Double H Bar Ranch, shuttles roughly 20,000 people a year out to the feedlines on the National Elk Refuge so people can get an up-close view of the region’s wapiti. If a substantial percentage of the herd became infected with chronic wasting disease, he says, he isn’t sure whether the sight of suffering animals could become a deterrent to wildlife watchers.

“Of course, we’re always concerned,” he said. “It’ll be interesting.”

Warburton said he trusts the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the National Elk Refuge to make the right decision when and if the disease makes it to Teton County.

If hunting license data is any indication, Wyoming hunters don’t seem to mind hunting elk in areas where chronic wasting disease is documented. For example, the number of elk tags sold in the Laramie Peak area, in the heart of the chronic wasting disease epicenter, has almost doubled from 2001 to 2007.

But even as researchers point out that currently no link exists between chronic wasting disease and human disease, most states advise hunters to take precautions such as wearing rubber gloves and not eating game organs.

When Edwards tells a hunter that his or her elk or deer has chronic wasting disease, the most common question is “Would you eat it?”

As a researcher who tests hundreds of ungulates for the disease every year, Edwards says he is practically “swimming” in infected material. At this point, a little meat from an infected animal won’t make much of a difference. “But I wouldn’t feed it to my kids,” he says.

Johnie Filbeck, co-owner of the You Tag ’em, We’ll Drag ’em elk and bison retrieval company, spends much of his time in the fall hauling carcasses off the refuge for successful hunters. Like Warburton, Filbeck says he trusts the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Monitoring not a plan

“My personal feelings is that Game and Fish is going to do all the job they can to keep it down,” he said.

But Smith agrees with the conservation groups that Wyoming Game and Fish doesn’t really have a plan for a chronic wasting disease outbreak beyond increased monitoring efforts.

“Monitoring alone is not a plan to address the disease,” he said. “Monitoring can only do two things: It can tell you the distribution of the disease and the prevalence. If you do it over time, it can tell you how both those would change.”

Despite assurances from Kreeger, Edwards and others that chronic wasting disease likely won’t result in significant losses to the Jackson Elk Herd, Smith says at some point the population will probably start to decline.

“At that point, the only way to maintain state population objectives is to cut hunting permits,” he said. “This is partly driven by politics, by economy, by sociology and public pressure. What they’re going to do is what they’re going to do.”

For now, Kreeger says increased monitoring is really the only option. While Kreeger currently oversees a “test and slaughter” program for brucellosis on feedgrounds in northwest Wyoming, that type of effort wouldn’t translate to chronic wasting disease.

Efforts to cull large portions of chronic wasting disease-infected deer herds in several states have proved fruitless. A similar attempt should the disease reach the National Elk Refuge would be akin to “burning the village in order to save it,” Kreeger said.

As for hunter Mills, he said he doesn’t regret his decision to throw away his tainted elk meat.

“I’d do it again,” Mills said. “To me, it’s not worth it to take a chance. A lot of people, they just don’t test them. That way they don’t have to think about it.”