Chronic Wasting Disease Confirmed at National Elk Refuge After Initial Fears

by Jon D. B.

The National Elk Refuge’s first confirmed case of Chronic Wasting Disease comes from a cow harvested “just a few miles” from controversial feeding grounds.

Both lethal and incurable, Chronic Wasting Disease is a horrible disease that can decimate wildlife populations. Now, the U.S.’s National Elk Refuge is having to contend with their first positive CWD hit – and what comes next.

The positive test comes from an elk cow harvested “just a few miles “just a few miles from where alfalfa pellets are lined out on the National Elk Refuge,” reports local newspaper Jackson Hole Daily. The harvest took place on December 2 in Grand Teton National Park.

From there, a Teton park technician extracted a throat lymph node from the cow to send off for testing at Wyoming Wildlife Health Laboratory. It was at WWHL that the refuge’s first positive case of Chronic Wasting Disease came to light.

“This is not going to be good, that’s my gut feeling,” Wildlife Disease Supervisor Hank Edwards tells Jackson Hole Daily. “How bad it’s going to be? I don’t know,” he adds.

Out of precaution, a second test was performed – and confirmed – the CWD-positive result. The infected cow is one of nearly 20,000 cervids that gather on federal feedgrounds.

“The positive test marks a new era in elk management in western Wyoming,” continues Jackson Hole Daily. Within, “the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is, for now, continuing to feed elk on a landscape that [harbors] the lethal, degenerative sickness many fear will soon drive down the elk population.”

Chronic Wasting Disease Worsening for American Cervids

Also known as CWD, Chronic Wasting Disease can infect all members of the cervidae family. This includes everything from common white-tailed deer, to caribou, elk, and moose.

Once infected, symptoms of the disease include drastic weight loss, or wasting, most prominently. Other signs of infection include stumbling and similar signs of neurological deterioration.

The disease has been spreading since first detection over four decades ago in southeastern Wyoming. Since it’s discovery, it has made its way into the cervid populations of 26 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

CWD is incurable, and is always fatal for the host. There is still no known treatment or vaccine on file with the Centers for Disease Control.

“CWD has been [found] in the region in the past in mule deer and moose,” Jackson Hole Daily clarifies. “In the fall of 2018, a mule deer tested positive in Grand Teton National Park, and infected mule deer have been detected near Pinedale, Star Valley and in the Wyoming Range.”

CWD Sets “Grim Forecast” for Elk & Hunters

Moreover, Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Supervisor Brad Hovinga says he’s “been speculating when it would arrive for a long time. It’s extremely difficult to predict.”

Unfortunately, there is still no foolproof gauge to predict the spread or effect of CWD for the fed elk population in and around the National Elk Refuge. The disease is unpredictable, as Hovinga states. Peer-reviewed research by Colorado State University, however, does offer a glimpse of what may come to pass.

Colorado State University ecologist Tom Hobbs is working in collaboration with a Wyoming Game and Fish employee to offer said glimpse. Together, they “Predict prevalence will reach 10% within five years of CWD’s arrival. That is a grim forecast for elk hunters, because the same study forecasts that the population will begin a decline once prevalence in cows reaches 7% – that with a complete absence of cow elk hunting,” adds Jackson Hole Daily.

National Elk Refuge’s Feeding Program Will Continue

While controversial, the “organized mass feeding”, as Jackson Hole Daily puts it, of elk in their area is a management device Wyoming has implemented for well over a century. The tactic’s origins came about after several severe 19th century winters laid waste to local elk populations. To combat this for future seasons, elk feeding began. It has since proven to aid populations drastically, alongside keeping elk off private land and away from livestock – to which they can spread many wild diseases.

In turn, however, the practice is also widely unpopular. Its own penchant for disease spread amongst wild herds being a chief concern. Now, the onset of Chronic Wasting Disease within the refuge’s population is sure to bring further condemnation.

For now, the National Elk Refuge plans to continue the feeding program for their nearly 20,000 elk this winter. Jackson Hole Daily does note, though, that “some tweaks” are coming to combat the illness.

“Surveillance will increase, and elk exhibiting signs of CWD, such as listlessness, will be promptly culled and their carcasses hauled away from state-run feedgrounds,” the paper adds of park officials’ plans. Refuge managers aim to change their feeding program slowly – and in increments – over time, rather than attempting drastic – and potentially just-as-harmful – immediate change.

“Obviously it’s extremely concerning to me that it has made its way into the Jackson Elk Herd,” Refuge Manager Frank Durbian adds of the issue to Jackson Hole Daily. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ – it was a matter of ‘when’ – and unfortunately we just got our answer to ‘when.’”

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[H/T Jackson Hole Daily]