As part of increased surveillance in the area, Wyoming Game and Fish warden and technician collect lymph nodes from a hunter-killed elk on the National Elk Refuge on Nov. 8, within a few miles of where the CWD-infected mule deer was killed by a vehicle. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Updated Nov. 26 — Wyoming Game and Fish laboratory workers have identified Chronic Wasting Disease in a buck mule deer that was killed by a vehicle in Grand Teton National Park.

Park employees discovered the mulie on the Gros Ventre Road on Nov. 5, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

“We took tissue samples as we do with all road-kill animals,” German said. The park sent the samples — typically lymph nodes — to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Health Laboratory, the state agency said in a statement. “We just got that back,” Germann said Wednesday morning.

“I think wildlife managers for state agencies as well and the park and other interagency biologists were not completely surprised” that CWD had reached the park, she said. CWD, an always-fatal neurological disease with no know vaccine, has been found in a mule deer as close to the park as Pinedale and Star Valley to the south and near Dubois and Cody to the park’s east.

Park scientists said Wednesday they believe the deer might have migrated to the park from the east.

The disease in mule deer has advanced steadily across the state from east to west. Among elk, its progress has been slower. Grand Teton officials stressed that the disease has not been found in any park elk.

But its anticipated arrival at more than 20 Wyoming Game and Fish elk feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide and the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole — where elk are concentrated unnaturally — worries some conservationists and wildlife managers who fear an epidemic.

“Over the last two years Game and Fish has increased surveillance for CWD at the elk feedgrounds with additional personnel,” the agency said in a statement. “To date, no elk that visit winter feedgrounds have tested positive for the disease. However, with the discovery of CWD in Star Valley and Pinedale, Game and Fish officials believe CWD is likely to arrive in elk at feedgrounds at some point in the future.”

Some conservationists have pushed Game and Fish vigorously to stop the feeding program that the agency undertakes to boost elk numbers, separate them from cattle feed lines and keep them off highways, among other reasons.

CWD is a cousin of incurable Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans and “mad cow” disease in cattle. Symptoms include slow physical and mental degeneration leading to death.

It is also found in moose.

Wildlife officials discourage the handling of big game neurological tissue from animals killed in hunt areas where the disease is known to be present. Game and Fish regulates the transport of some big game parts from those zones and also their disposal.

There’s recent worry that the neurological disorder may be transmitted between species and even by muscle meat.

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Successful deer hunters should get their animal tested, Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay said, advice that now becomes more relevant to Teton-area hunters. That advice is applicable beyond CWD endemic areas for reasons that are now apparent with the Grand Teton discovery — one made in a zone that’s not contiguous to another with known infection.

The leapfrog discovery is not alarming, he said. That’s in part because CWD already has been found in deer west of the Continental Divide.

“The amount of surveillance out in that area is higher than it was before,” he said. “We’ve got additional resources devoted to that to make sure we’re watching closely.

“We’re not surprised we found it in this area because it’s so close,” to other infections, he said. “I think we’re not even looking at 20 miles away,” to the nearest infected area, he said. “Deer appear nationwide to be the drivers of CWD and its spread,” MacKay said.

Germann said Grand Teton is aware of the implications of the finding and will be on guard. “We’ll probably try to increase our surveillance … as well as develop carcass management options.”

Today, disposal depends on where a dead animal lies. “If it creates a safety concern, we remove a carcass,” she said, and take it to “what you can call a carcass dump.”

Because of the discovery, managers at the National Elk Refuge, which borders Grand Teton to the south, began requiring mandatory testing of elk killed by hunters on that reserve. Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell implemented the requirement Nov. 25 as part of a strategy developed in advance by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service operates the 25,000-acre grounds where some 7,000 elk winter, frequently relying on supplemental feed. In places, the Gros Ventre Road is only a stone’s throw from the Refuge.

It’s logical to assume an infected animal will shed the disease agent where it walks, said Dr. Dave Gustine, branch chief of the fish and wildlife program in the park.

Testing of hunter-killed animals on the refuge had only been a recommended action before Glaspell’s decision. In a statement refuge officials said they would keep a keen eye out for animals displaying symptoms of CWD, kill suspect animals, coordinate outreach and pursue new options for carcass disposal.

The spelling of  Denise Germann’s name was corrected — Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. In your list of reasons for feeding elk, you left out the number one reason it all began, to prevent mass starvation during extremely harsh winters.

  2. Of course it’s no surprise that CWD was found in GTNP. The spread of CWD is inevitable through all cervid species.
    Sad that the conservationists who proposed to phase out the elk feedgrounds weren’t interviewed as well for this article to tell the rest of the story.

  3. Public officials in Wyoming always seem to say they’re “not surprised” when CWD shows up in a new area and seem to downplay the significance of its arrival. I wonder if they will be surprised when CWD has decimated wildlife populations here in several decades as it has in parts of southeastern Wyoming.

    1. Not feeding the elk when climatic conditions require supplementation will result in certain death due to malnutrition. Do you know how many calves in a population with a cow to calf ratio of only 20% died on the refuge last winter? That is a pivotal question. The percentage of dead calves was staggering and that will result in the demise of the herd. And that impacts all of the carnivores who rely on elk for food. Re-wildling does not always work and is an ill-fated dream in terms of the Jackson Elk Herd. Feed them properly, spread the feed to avoid contamination and get on with it. . The elk have depended on man for over 100 years. I for one do not choose to live here without them. And fear mongering CWD is fueling a train wreck for our natural resources, our wildlife.