The director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department called on Congress to pass legislation to aid in the fight against a fatal neurological disease that is found in deer, elk and moose.

Meanwhile, Game and Fish finalized a draft management plan to combat the spreading disease last week.

On Wednesday, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian R. Nesvik told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that chronic wasting disease is a national problem. To date, the disease has been found in 26 U.S. States and three Canadian provinces.

Nesvik testified in favor of creating a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) chairs the committee.

The always-fatal disease destroys the central nervous systems in members of the Cervidae family, which includes deer, elk and moose. It spreads through abnormal proteins called prions.

According to several studies cited in Wednesday's testimony, the disease is most prominent in deer. It's not as frequently found in elk.

So far, chronic wasting disease has only been found in one Wyoming moose. Another moose in western Montana tested positive for CWD.

Most animals die from CWD within 2 1/2 years of being infected. Because animals do not show symptoms of CWD until its late stages, most infected animals killed by hunters appear to be healthy. It's not until wildlife managers test the animals that the disease is typically discovered.

Research hasn't concluded whether eating an animal infected with CWD is harmful to humans, but federal and state officials advise against it.

According to Wednesday's testimony, prions can persist for years in the environment and bind to soil elements. Prions can be introduced into the soil and vegetation through several means including infected animal carcasses, urine, feces and saliva. Once it's been introduced to an area, it's likely there to stay as uninfected animals move into the area and catch the disease, repeating the process.

Keeping up with CWD's spread

From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, game and fish employees have worked a total of 11,604 man-hours and traveled 65,869 miles at a cost of $650,610 to monitor the disease. That funding is drawn from state sportsperson license sales.

"These CWD expenses have a direct negative impact to the available funding for other wildlife conservation efforts," according to Nesvik's testimony.

And the cost will only increase as CWD continues to expand throughout the Cowboy State and U.S., he added.

In the early 2000s, there were "significant" efforts to help states with managing CWD. The U.S. Department of the Interior launched a CWD task force that worked alongside the Department of Agriculture. Various government and non-government organizations helped with CWD research.

Federal funding was available in the early 2000s for state agencies to monitor CWD in the wild. That money dried up in 2012.

Today, state wildlife management agencies are spending more than ever on researching and monitoring CWD. According to Nesvik, states spent an average of $437,440 in the last year monitoring CWD. That figure jumped to $511,844 by the next fiscal year.

USGS

The number of animals tested for CWD nationwide is expected to expand by 32% over the next fiscal year.

"This increase in testing comes with a steep price tag — over the next five years, the states currently battling CWD anticipate spending over $84 million on surveillance and monitoring alone, an average of over $3 million per state in which the disease has been confirmed in wild animals," according to Wednesday's written testimony.

Declining license sales when the money is badly needed to fund CWD monitoring programs have only made the problem worse.

"This is one of the reasons we are testifying before you today," Nesvik said.

What's next for Wyoming? 

Last week, the WGFD released a draft CWD management plan. The department plans to hold a number of public meetings throughout Wyoming to gain feedback. A meeting is scheduled in Casper Dec. 11. Laramie and Sheridan also have meetings coming up on Dec. 10 and Dec. 12, respectively.

A committee consisting of Game and Fish representatives, independent scientists, outfitters and general members of the public drafted the plan.

As of the Nov. 27 draft, CWD has reached 31 of 37 of the state's mule deer herds and 9 of Wyoming's 36 elk herds.

WGFD

The disease's prevalence is greatest in southeastern Wyoming.

In the draft, wildlife officials propose using "experimental hunter harvest" strategies to reduce the number of infected mule deer. Harvest management strategies would be specifically tailored to localized populations.

Targeting a higher number of buck mule deer, for example, could help remove a higher proportion of infected animals. "Focused agency removal" (sharpshooters) hasn't been ruled out, but the WGFD says having hunters remove affected animals is the preferred method.

Significant harvest management strategies may require public outreach efforts to gain and maintain support depending on the scope of the action.

According to the draft plan, artificially high concentrations of cervids may serve as a catalyst for spreading CWD. Those include "urban and rural communities where private citizens intentionally feed wildlife, or where there is an abundance of irrigated green space (parks, golf courses, etc.).

In Wyoming, the main source of artificial cervid concentrations is agricultural operations including mineral licks, water developments, haystacks and irrigated hayfields.

Game and Fish officials said in the draft that the agency intends to work with local governments to pass ordinances to decrease cervid concentrations in their jurisdictions. Officials also propose working with landowners to decrease artificial concentrations through hunting seasons or culling.

The department will also educate farmers on ways to reduce cervid concentrations near irrigated hayfields, haystacks, water developments and salt licks.

Wyoming's 23 elk feedgrounds have also served as a point of controversy in managing CWD's spread.

The draft plan's authors seem to allude to that, writing: "Supplemental winter feeding of elk creates complex biological, social, economic and political issues. Wildlife disease adds to this complexity."

They contine with the acknowledgment that artificially concentrating elk in the feedgrounds each winter could result in a more rapid spread of CWD.

WGFD plans to create a localized committee of people in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties, where the state's winter feedgrounds are located.

Plans to combat the potential spread of CWD onto elk feeding grounds include monitoring for cervids showing signs of the disease. Wildlife managers also plan to adopt feeding practices that reduce animal-to-animal contact.

CWD has not made its way onto Wyoming's elk feedgrounds, but some fear it's only a matter of time.

On Dec. 5 last year, writing in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, former National Elk Refuge Chief Biologist Bruce Smith declared, "Time's up," for chronic wasting disease spreading to areas where elk are highly concentrated.

"There's little opportunity for any animals that come in contact with each other to not become infected," Smith told K2 Radio News in October. "They just have to have whatever an infectious dose would be.

"As more become sick, the infection accelerates. It's like the perfect storm. You're going to see this spiral out of control"

Smith compared the feedgrounds to a "super daycare center” in terms of the potential for CWD to spread.

"Most wildlife managers don't use feeding; they know better than that," Smith said.

It will be a years-long — maybe even decades-long — process for chronic wasting disease to reach high prevalence on the feedgrounds and elk refuge Smith said. But once it does, it will be irreversible.

The former Elk Refuge biologist said there is a degree of political pressure behind keeping the elk in feeding ground areas artificially high. It's good for tourism. Hunting guides can promise more successful hunts.

But the long term effects of not acting now to reduce the artificial numbers could stick around for generations to come.

"It's important to be objective about this," Smith said. "Sometimes it's pretty obvious to me what's right.

"We have to get with it in a hurry."

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