Elk in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are facing a new threat: chronic wasting disease.
In early December, a Wyoming resident shot a cow elk in Grand Teton National Park. It repeatedly tested positive for CWD. And that means the highly contagious and fatal neurodegenerative disease is now spreading among elk in the area.
Wyoming Biologists Link Feeding to Overcrowding
And as the feed season begins, the danger is only going to grow. That’s because biologists have gathered detailed data that show how crowded the elk are on northwest Wyoming’s feedgrounds during the coldest months of the year, Wyoming News Now reports.
“Basically, elk contact rates were 2.6 times higher during the feed season,” National Elk Refuge Senior Biologist Eric Cole told Wyoming News Now. “During feeding operations themselves — when elk are actively being fed — we commonly have elk in densities of 1,000 elk per square kilometer.”
Cole said feeding is by far the strongest predictor of elk contact rates. And the more tightly packed the elk are, the more the disease will spread.
His analysis was limited to the 15,000 acres around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge next to Jackson. Most of the elk feedgrounds run by the state are even more cramped than that.
A New Era of Disease
After that confirmed case from early December, it’s safe to say the Jackson elk herd is now infected. The question is, what do wildlife managers do about it?
“This is ushering the National Elk Refuge into a new era,” Refuge Manager Frank Durbian said. “There are going to be some changes, there are going to be some challenges and probably some things affected that we haven’t even predicted.”
Environmentalists have been pushing for an end to the century-old system of distributing alfalfa pellets and hay in feedgrounds during the harshest months. What’s more, they say the current system speeds the spread of the incurable disease.
Roughly 20,000 elk get fed on the federally-run national refuge and on 22 state-run feedgrounds in three counties.
But the state feedgrounds have no plans to change the current feeding system, especially not in the short term.
“I think it’s reckless to start with the position that ‘We’re not going to change anything with feedgrounds in the immediate future,’” Greater Yellowstone Coalition staffer Chris Colligan said.
Colligan pointed out that the western Wyoming economy is tied to the elk population. Further, he said Wyoming’s passive approach of simply monitoring the spread of CWD isn’t going to cut it now.
Game and Fish Wildlife Disease Supervisor Hank Edwards said he’s seeing more and more CWD among elk. And that’s an ominous sign for the future of Wyoming’s elk population.