How quickly will national elk feeding grounds spread chronic wasting disease?

In winter animal tourists get close to elk at the refuge. Lori Iverson / USFWS

The federal handouts to 12,000-some elk on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, WY, have gotten a lot of criticism lately as a potential mass distribution system for chronic wasting disease. An online documentary series, Terra the Nature of our World, just re-aired the documentary Feeding the Problem by Danny Schmidt, which warns that unless feeding is phased out, the scary, brain-destroying, fatal disease may sicken most of the population. Bruce Smith, a former biologist for the range who was interviewed in the film, also just relaeased a book Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd, which says the population should be cut in half.

For about a century people have been feeding elk in the winter on the range. It started as a way to placate local ranchers, who otherwise ended up feeding the elk with their cattle. Now it’s a hit with hunters, who have a supersized elk population to stalk. And, let’s be honest, animal tourists get a kick out of seeing them so easily. In winter the herd is a spectacle and tradition. Horses pull sleighs among the animals. The antlers they shed are picked up by boyscouts, auctioned off and turned into monuments in Jackson Hole.

At this point it’s inevitable that CWD will reach the feeding ground–even those who support feeding admit that. But they question whether it will be that big of a deal. One rancher complains in Feeding the Problem that there is “too much science” in the argument against feeding. It’s one thing to hear Republican presidential candidates pretend that global warming doesn’t exist; they get money and support from the oil industry. But here are local guides and ranchers arguing that science isn’t really about data and results, but a matter of theory and opinion. As Upton Sinclair said: “It’s hard to make a man understandsomething when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.”

The big question is what will happen to the elk when the disease hits the feeding range. Will CWD inflict widespread disease and suffering and wipe out the elks? Or just cause widespread disease and suffering? Should we try to avert a catastrophe? Or just wait and see how big a catastrophe it really is?

Right now Wyoming is already testing for CWD, which is strongest in the opposite (southeast) corner of the state. Because the disease can spread through contact with droppings and urine, the feed ground staff already spreads the feed wide and covers over elk droppings with snow. But there is still confusion about how exactly CWD spreads–though biologists are pretty sure it’s more easily than other brain-wasting transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases. Neighboring Montana accuses Wyoming of allowing the disease to spread.

One of the ranchers interviewed, Brad Mead, says he was reluctantly turned around by the  science and thinks the area would be better off dealing with CWD before it hits the elk refuge. “I have to believe tourism would suffer a lot if ppl driving down the highway past the elk refuge saw elk dying of chronic wasting disease in the hundreds or thousands,” Mead says.

Of great interest to bison lovers: Mead also says that as a rancher, brucellosis isn’t really that big of a concern. Brucellosis is the excuse for slaughtering bison that roam outside the park–even though it’s been shown they catch it through elk. But I guess that’s too much science.

elk Where to SEE ELK

See a local webcam of the Elk Refuge

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