By Mark Davis
Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — As a motion was made to approve the Wyoming Game and Fish Department budget, Commission Vice President Pete Dube interjected. Something was weighing on his mind: chronic wasting disease.
Earlier in the day, Game and Fish Wildlife Veterinarian Mary Wood spoke about the serious problem the disease poses in Wyoming. It’s killing deer and threatens other ungulates across the state — and the more scientists look for chronic wasting disease (CWD), the more of it they find.
Dube called to increase the budget for testing for the disease by 50 percent, from $100,000 to $150,000. He didn’t get any argument from his fellow commissioners, with the motion passing by a unanimous vote.
Devoting more money to the cause at a time when department revenue has been largely stagnant speaks to state officials’ fear of CWD’s possible impacts on wildlife.
It’s a fatal disease of the central nervous system that affects mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose, according to the Game and Fish. The disease belongs to the group of rare diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). These disorders are caused by abnormally folded proteins called “prions.” Evidence suggests CWD is transmitted via saliva, urine, feces or even infected carcasses. Animals may also be infected through feed or pasture contaminated with CWD prions — which can persist in the environment for many years.
Cases of CWD were found in several new hunt areas in 2018. Most notable was a case found in a road-killed mule deer in Grand Teton National Park.
But Wood said finding CWD in new areas is no surprise. The department has been upping surveillance over the past three years — and finding the disease in new places often is simply a matter of looking. Meanwhile, in some areas where CWD is already known to exist, new testing shows the prevalence of the disease has increased, Wood said. One of the areas of concern is in the southwestern part of the Bighorn Mountains. In Hunt Area 164, prevalence was more than 40 percent last year, said Corey Class, wildlife management coordinator for the Cody region.
“When prevalence gets that high, we worry,” Class said.
New research shows the disease is more prevalent in mature mule deer bucks than in does and young bucks.
“The question is; what happens to those bucks over a long period of time?” Wood said. “In talking with managers on the ground, working in areas with populations with high prevalence … areas where we’ve seen a lot of disease pressure for a long time, we’re noticing some disturbing trends.”
There are fewer mature bucks — a visible difference in how many big, mature bucks are being seen. Combined with matching data from the past few years, the reports from managers are of great concern to Wyoming scientists.
Game and Fish personnel tested the most CWD samples in the history of the program last year — testing more than 5,800 animals, Wood said.
“It has been an incredible effort by our folks,” she said. “It takes a lot of time with boots on the ground.”
Yet, even at a record pace, the number of samples is limited by the budget to pay for testing of the samples.
“The reality is even 6,000 samples, when you’re trying to survey white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and elk in the entire state, doesn’t end up being a lot of samples,” Wood said.
That’s what spurred Dube’s motion to up the budget.
So far, management of the disease is limited. Scientists are studying ways to decrease prevalence, but are still in the preliminary phase of deciding on management tools. One important tool is long-term surveillance, to track the effects of the disease on herds over time. Another is to continue looking for CWD in areas where it has yet to be found; there are several areas in the state — including some in the Big Horn Basin and hunt areas close to Powell — where there hasn’t been enough testing to make any conclusions on prevalence.
In yet another effort to get a handle on managing the disease, the Game and Fish is partnering with the Ruckelshaus Institute, a division of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. The goal is to start a statewide CWD working group to develop recommendations for management. The working group will be comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders to collaborate and help scientists.