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From: TSS ()
Subject: Wyoming Feedgrounds Double as CWD Time Bomb
Date: November 3, 2005 at 7:02 pm PST

Wyoming Feedgrounds Double as CWD Time Bomb

By Bill Schneider, 11-03-05

Elk hunters in the Greater Yellowstone Area should start thinking like they’re living below a huge dam with cracks in it. They know what’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time, and it’s guaranteed to be devastating.

That dam is located in northwestern Wyoming, mostly in the Upper Green River Basin, but also around Jackson. It manifests itself in the form of twenty-two state-managed feedgrounds, where the State of Wyoming collectively feeds up to 20,000 elk during severe winters, and the famous National Elk Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s a time-honored principle of wildlife management that when you feed wildlife, you pay a big price for it. For elk hunters—and everybody else who likes seeing elk—that bill will soon be due because Wyoming’s feedgrounds double as a Chronic Wasting Disease time bomb ready to explode.

“That’s true,” answers Robert Hoskins, president of the Dubois Wildlife Association and long-time opponent to the feedgrounds, when asked if he agrees. “It is a time bomb because the State of Wyoming refuses to consider any proposal to close the feedgrounds. We’re just waiting for CWD to hit. We’re doing everything we can to stop the feeding, but we are rebuffed every time. The livestock industry is in complete control of this whole thing.”

“It’s an eventuality,” agrees Tom Roffe, chief of wildlife health and veterinarian for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Bozeman. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

And when it happens, what will we do? The answer to that question should send a shiver up the spine of every elk hunter because the solution could be worse than the problem.

Wyoming has documented cases of CWD in both elk and mule deer dating back thirty years. The disease has been slowly moving northwest from the southeastern corner of the state. In recent years, there have been several documented CWD cases in the Thermopolis area, which is only about thirty air miles from the Upper Green River Basin, but still east of the Continental Divide. Roffe finishes the grim picture by pointing out that radio-collared elk have been documented traveling from the feedgrounds back and forth over the Divide. For elk hunters, this is like looking out your window and seeing water starting to leak through cracks in the dam.

In CWD outbreaks on game farms, the disease has killed up to 50 percent of the animals, but in wild populations, mortality is much lower. Roffe likens the feedgrounds to a situation somewhere between free-ranging elk and captive herds on game farms, so mortality will be high, but probably not 50 percent. “Nobody knows what it will be,” he says.

But even 50 percent mortality on the feedgrounds might seem like a minor problem compared to the solution to a CWD epidemic. Montana, for example, has formalized a CWD response plan that includes an option for killing all elk in the area around the outbreak. Wyoming has a plan, too, but it does not include the “depopulation” option. Not yet!

Wyoming’s plan is, according to both Roffe and Hoskins, basically waiting for the disease to hit the feedgrounds and then deal with it in three ways—reduce density, reduce feeding, and spread out the elk herd.

“Why would you not do that before it gets there,” Roffe asks. “Wyoming’s plan will be too little, too late.” He compares it to waiting for avian flu pandemic instead of trying to prevent it from happening.

Hoskins points out the absence of barriers for elk carrying CWD from moving from the feedgrounds to Idaho and Montana and infecting populations there. “It’s a slow process, but it will get to Montana and Idaho.”

“Prevention is the best action,” Roffe insists. “If we want to have a success, there has to be a prevention plan.”

The punch line is: Nobody has a good solution for dealing with an outbreak of CWD in our wild elk herds, and it’s almost guaranteed to happen in Wyoming. The best case scenario might be letting the disease run its course and lose a huge percentage of our elk populations. The worse case scenario might be trying to eradicate it. Wildlife officials are understandably skittish about saying this out loud, but any attempt to eradicate the disease would involve killing lots of elk. On the Wyoming feedgrounds, in fact, it could easily mean killing many thousands.

There are ways to minimize the risk in advance, and stopping the feeding tops the list. In reality, the feedgrounds are no different than game farms, which have been banned in Wyoming since the early 1970s. They concentrate wildlife and create circumstances favorable to spreading the disease. Hoskins, never lost for words or energy to stop the feeding, describes the feedgrounds as “petri dishes for spreading disease.”

Roffe agrees. “The feedgrounds are bringing elk into close proximity and enhancing the probability of spreading CWD.”

Let’s be clear on one key point. This is not a Wyoming problem. Instead, it’s a massive threat to elk populations throughout the Rocky Mountain West. We can only hope Wyoming sees the gravity of the situation and acts before it’s too late.

Wyoming has resisted placing feedgrounds east of the Continental Divide. Instead, the state has concentrated on protecting key winter range to keep the elk population high, a similar strategy used successfully in Montana. Now, Wyoming wildlife officials and conservation organizations need to grow the backbone necessary to take on the livestock lobby for the benefit of wildlife and hunters and close the feedgrounds west of the Divide.


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