Wasting disease adds urgency to Teton Co. disposal issue

By Allie Gross

Jackson Hole Daily

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Chronic wasting disease is officially present in Teton County, and the clock is ticking to devise a plan for disposing of infected animal carcasses.

“I don’t think it’s been answered, for me at least, who is ultimately responsible?” Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Supervisor Heather Overholser told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners at a Monday workshop. “I think that’s something that needs to be answered.”

For decades, Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling has accepted 30 to 40 tons a year of wild game carcasses at the Trash Transfer Station in Horsethief Canyon. The Wyoming Department of Transportation picks up roadkill and dumps it into the dead animal pit.

On Nov. 5, however, a mule deer from Grand Teton National Park tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The deadly ungulate illness is spread by “prions,” misfolded proteins that attack the brains and bodies of victims. The prions can spread through soil, grasses and water and are difficult to destroy, requiring upwards of 1,000 degrees of heat to be neutralized.

The long-awaited arrival of chronic wasting disease complicates Teton County’s carcass-disposal options. The Horsethief Canyon dead animal pit is required to close July 1, and the Bonneville County, Idaho, landfill that takes the rest of our trash won’t accept potentially infected animals.

The ideal approach, Overholser said, is a regional incinerator or lined landfill that can be shared by local and federal agencies. Stakeholders, including WYDOT, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the National Elk Refuge and surrounding counties, all seem happy to participate.

Some, including Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Board Chairman Don Baker and Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, are skeptical that it should be ISWR’s responsibility to take the lead on the project.

“We’ve had a 20-year tradition of ISWR taking care of disposal of dead animals, but now it’s become a biohazard,” Vogelheim said. “Why does this have to fall into your lap?”

Other counties seem to be in the same bind. Lincoln County Solid Waste Director Mary Crosby said, “I really do not feel like it is our problem, but right now nothing else is being done. It’s being left to us.”

Game and Fish’s Brad Hovinga said he is committed to working collaboratively toward a solution, but wasn’t ready to comment about how many resources could be committed.

“Our administration seems to be committed to doing what’s necessary. What that funding level is, I’m not sure,” he said.

Statutes don’t require counties to dispose of wild game, but it’s unclear who is responsible.

“It would be wonderful if a state agency would step forward,” Vogelheim said.

If WYDOT doesn’t have anywhere to take carcasses in the future, though, “They stay where they’re laying,” WYDOT foreman Bruce Daigle has said.

So far, the only space floated to host an incinerator or landfill has been Teton County’s Horsethief Canyon Trash Transfer Station, which has other priorities and limited space.

Commissioner Natalia Macker said the next step should be determining all the properties available for a potential regional incinerator or landfill.

If by the end of the year there’s no clear path for a regional disposal, Overholser said, “I believe at that point we probably need to do something on our own.”

Overholser said that if the county wants to build an incinerator on its land, the bidding and construction process could take at least a year. She also said that Teton County can request that the Department of Environmental Quality provide an extension on the dead animal pit until another disposal method is secured.

One plan would be to go ahead and build a small, local incinerator at Horsethief Canyon for the short term until resources for a large-scale regional incinerator or landfill are available.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world if a second incinerator is developed somewhere else or the incinerator at Horsethief is scaled up as needed,” Teton County Public Works Director Sean O’Malley said.

Overholser worried that duplication of resources, especially toward pricey incinerators, would be a waste.

Further suggestions included expediting the discussion to get a specific purpose excise tax on the May or August ballots or involving the private sector to build and operate a facility. Overholser suggested that the incinerator could generate some funding by destroying medical waste or evidence.