An open letter

Dear “X” and Governor Dave Freudenthal,

I’m writing to the next director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and to the Wyoming governor, on a matter of some urgency.

You’re running out of time to phase out and shut down the 22 elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Failure to do so, and soon, will mean that one of the greatest wildlife management disasters will unfold on your watch – the death of many thousands of Wyoming elk to the ravages of chronic wasting disease.

Current G&F Director Terry Cleveland has dodged that particular bullet with his retirement this summer. You two may not be as lucky, particularly if the governor seeks a third term.

The crowded conditions of the feedgrounds creates a highly abnormal environment – a giant petrie dish for the growth and spread of diseases like brucellosis, tuberculosis, and coming soon to a Wyoming feedground, chronic wasting disease.

As you well know, the disease has made its mysterious way up from southeastern Wyoming and at latest report is only 120 air miles from the Muddy Feedground near Pinedale. Research from CWD-infected elk farms in the U.S. and Canada indicates that it can take three-to-five years from initial contact to the visible symptoms showing up in deer and elk – drooling, stumbling, erratic behavior and emaciation.

CWD could be in a Wyoming feedground right now.

CWD is a neurological disease among cervids – deer, elk and moose – that attacks the brain, causing weight loss, abnormal behavior, and, eventually, death. CWD belongs to a group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). CWD is similar to scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, but CWD is a distinct disease known only to affect members of the deer family. Scientists think CWD is transferred from one animal to another through contact with saliva, feces, and urine, but the disease may also be spread indirectly from the environment to susceptible animals.

It is not a matter of if CWD will hit the feedgrounds, only a matter of when.

No one really knows how fast or far CWD will spread in the crowded confines of the feedgrounds, because our experience is limited to elk farms, where 40-80 percent of herds have become infected before officials have stepped in to kill all the animals. (Elk farms have been established in the West and Midwest and have had dozens to hundreds of animals.) But given the similarities of feedgrounds to elk farms, has the potential to be a flaming disaster.

Wyoming game wardens inspect a diseased elk, 2004. <br>Photo courtesy of Wyoming Fish & Game Dept.

When CWD arrives, the situation will get ugly. There’ll be a media frenzy with lots of political fallout. Imagine camera crews roaming western Wyoming, filming sick and dying animals for state and national broadcast. Despite the heroic efforts of Game and Fish employees to shoot all the obviously sick ones and pack them off for burial, residents and tourists alike are bound to encounter deranged deer and elk dying along or in roads and highways.

Furthermore, as has been learned with game farms and research facilities, CWD-infected animals can contaminate the grounds for years and even decades with CWD prions. Once contaminated with CWD prions, the feedgrounds would have to be fenced to keep cervids out, so as to not spread the disease.

The long-term costs of CWD in the feedgrounds will be tallied in the millions. We know that Wisconsin lost more than $60 million in hunting revenues when CWD was found in a deer herd in 2001. How many elk hunters will come to western Wyoming in the midst of a CWD outbreak? How many tourists will drive to Jackson to see dead and dying elk at the National Elk Refuge?

There is no cure, no vaccination for CWD. It is always fatal. There is no plan, worked out by any state wildlife agency, that eradicates CWD in t wild or even slows its spread.

Wyoming plans to heighten surveillance, escalate testing and slaughter wherever CWD is found, use adaptive management, and disperse elk by winter feeding them over wider areas are all policies meant to slow the spread of CWD and buy time, especially political time. We even have the logical absurdity in G&F’s own CWD “plan” that the general public is banned from feeding cervids.

Uh, isn’t that exactly what the feedgrounds are doing?

And what’s this reference in the Game and Fish plan that if an area of CWD infection is found, it would be managed “aggressively”? What the heck does that mean? Machine guns?

None of these tactics will stop the spread of CWD, outside or inside the feedgrounds.

The only action that promises any hope of avoiding a disaster is shutting down the feedgrounds, and everyone knows it.

What I hope and pray is that you can summon up the political courage to do the right thing, and that you have time to do so. I am aware that it would not be easy, that the Wildlife Commission, the Legislature and the ag community would raise hell. The commission and the Legislature are both tilted to favoring ag interests, and the ag community emphatically doesn’t want to give up forage to elk, not when cattle can eat that forage on public lands.

You’ll need to get creative, raising funds to retire grazing leases, buy conservation easements to preserve or restore migration routes and armor-plate private hay stacks and cattle feed lines. You’ll need to tap the best minds to pull it off.

But it all begins with you deciding this is a fight worth having, taking on the ag community in all its manifestations.

What’ll it be?

Read more about it

The Wyoming G&F Department website has a CWD backgrounder at:


The Fish & Wildlife Service/National Park Service Final EIS on the Jackson Hole Elk & Bison Plan has some discussion of the threat of CWD to fed elk at:


The best overall website on CWD and wildlife in general is maintained by the Colorado Division of Wildlife:


Robert Hoskins, a Crowheart conservationist, makes a cogent argument that brucellosis in the feedgrounds is not a big problem and could easily be resolved by closing the feedgrounds.