Chronic wasting disease makes more inroads into elk feeding region

JACKSON — Chronic wasting disease has been detected in elk that dwell along the southwestern flank of the Wind River Range in an area where 80 percent or so of the animals congregate each winter on densely-packed feedgrounds.

The fatal disease’s presence in the Pinedale Elk Herd was first confirmed in a bull elk that a hunter killed on Oct. 7. It’s only the second time CWD has been found in elk that occupy Wyoming’s feedground region, where roughly 22,000 animals are fed hay and alfalfa pellets in unnaturally dense congregations for weeks each winter. 

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Regional Supervisor John Lund said he was bound by state statute and couldn’t say where precisely the CWD-positive animal was killed other than that it was in elk hunt area 98 — a zone that contains both the Muddy Creek and Scab Creek elk feedgrounds.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing, but we’re not surprised,” Lund told the News&Guide.

Elk hunt unit 98, bound on the east and west by Big Sandy River and Boulder Creek, overlays deer hunt area 138, where CWD was confirmed in January. The degenerative neurological malady has been spreading gradually westward across Wyoming for decades, and is just now arriving in northwestern Wyoming where the practice of elk feeding has persisted into modern times.

CWD was first confirmed in the Jackson Elk Herd about a year ago, when a cow elk a hunter shot in Grand Teton National Park tested positive.

There’s no saying how exactly the disease will spread within feedground elk herds, but a recent peer-reviewed study modeling the future of the Jackson Herd painted a grim picture: 10 percent of elk could carry CWD within 5 years, exceeding a 7-percent-prevalence tipping point that will trigger population decline even in the absence of cow elk hunting.

Wyoming wildlife managers have opted to keep feeding elk as CWD makes inroads in the region. Feedgrounds prop up elk populations and also make it easier to live with wildlife by keeping the big-bodied ungulates away from highways, towns and hay yards where they can cause property damage and spread diseases like brucellosis to cattle.

Both feedgrounds in hunt area 98 — near Scab Creek and Muddy Creek — are “pretty critical” to managing elk in those areas, Lund said.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever been able to completely not feed there,” he said. “But what we have been able to do is shorten those feeding seasons quite a bit.”

Most of what Game and Fish will do in response to detecting CWD in elk south of Pinedale is already occurring, Lund said. Those measures, he explained, include spreading out hay, killing and testing sick-looking animals and encouraging hunters to submit tissue samples so the animals they harvest can be tested.

Game and Fish is in the process of coming up with a longer-term plan. Meetings occurring this winter are convening stakeholders like ranchers, outfitters and conservationists, and the process will culminate in the agency’s first elk feeding management plan. That could mean more fundamental changes to elk feeding are afoot, though the state agency’s leadership has signaled that no feedgrounds will be closed anytime soon.

“I’m looking forward to the next several months of this process that we’re involving the public with,” Lund said. “We’re going to have some pretty interesting conversations, and we’re going to get some pretty interesting feedback.”

Game and Fish also recently announced two more newly CWD-positive elk hunting areas in the Sheridan region: units 36 and 129. The prion disease was well established in that region on the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains. Area 36 is surrounded on three sides by CWD-positive hunt areas, and elk area 129 overlays nine CWD-positive deer hunting areas.