JACKSON — Wyoming wildlife managers may intensively hunt down mule deer and hold populations low for long periods of time in areas where chronic wasting disease threatens to become prevalent.
That’s one strategy of many that could be authorized under the third version of Wyoming’s CWD management plan, a document that was updated for the first time since 2016 and published in draft form this week. There are three main management strategies the state plans to use to curb the spread and high prevalence of the lethal disease.
“One is to reduce artificial sources of concentration,” said Wyoming Game and Fish’s Casper Regional Wildlife Management Coordinator Justin Binfet, who co-authored the plan.
Congregation points that could be targeted vary, he said, and could range from agricultural haystacks to salt and mineral licks.
A second strategy Binfet listed focused on hunter harvest. By approving more intensive hunting seasons, wildlife managers could achieve “focused reductions of deer densities” in areas where CWD is being found at high rates, he said. Buck mule deer, which are especially susceptible to infection, could also be heavily targeted, though such decisions will be made at the herd-unit level.
“We kind of wanted to offer some specific strategies without being overly prescriptive to the regions or across the state,” Binfet said. “All of these disease management strategies are going to have to be specifically geared toward issues within a local herd unit.”
CWD considerations will be included in routine management of Wyoming’s ungulate herds, according to the draft plan. Surveillance and prevalence figures will be cited in “job completion reports” that otherwise provide population and distribution updates, and goals for the disease will factor into the “season setting” process used to fine-tune hunts and herd sizes.
The third management approach Binfet outlined is a carryover from the last CWD plan. It’s broad, he said, and consists of enforcing agency regulations, such as those that govern the transport of carcasses out of infected areas.
Wyoming’s latest attempt at crafting a CWD management plan produced a document that’s much more substantive than the last version. It’s based on the recommendations of a 30-person statewide working group that met four times over the summer and fall, with the involvement of the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute.
Jackson resident Shane Moore, a working group member, said the Game and Fish plan accurately represents their guidance.
“I think they really pretty diligently followed through on the recommendations from the group,” Moore said. “I honestly don’t know if this [plan] means we’ll be able to find a way to combat this disease, but if we don’t at least we’ll have made an honest effort.”
Chronic wasting disease has become a focal point of wildlife management in the United States and beyond because it’s incurable, steadily spreading and can cause declines in wild ungulate populations. It’s spread not by bacteria or a virus, but by misfolded proteins called “prions” that can persist in the environment outside of their animal host. The disease is degenerative, and generally ends an animal’s life within 2 1/2 years. Since first being found in a Wyoming mule deer in 1985, CWD has been found in 84% of the state’s mule deer herds and 25% of its elk herds. It officially reached Jackson Hole last fall.
Elk feedgrounds are a topic that the CWD working group did not advise on, but that is addressed in the state’s plan. The elk feeding management strategies outlined are largely carryovers from plans in place today and do not trigger any on-the-ground changes, said Game and Fish Jackson Regional Supervisor Brad Hovinga, another co-author of the plan.
The lack of reform to elk feedgrounds in the document does not preclude making changes in the near future.
A separate working group, consisting of people from the feedground region (Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties) is expected to convene this spring or early summer. Their recommendations will become an addendum of sorts to the plan.
Moore anticipates that decisions about elk feedgrounds will be made on a case-by-case basis.
“There are 22 different Game Fish feedgrounds and of course the National Elk Refuge, so there’s probably 23 different solutions,” Moore said. “I think they’re looking in that level of detail to evaluate each one carefully, and that’s a good approach.”
Wyoming Game and Fish’s draft CWD plan is open to public comment through Jan. 15. Access the document at WGFD.wyo.gov/get-involved/cwd-working-group.