A buck mule deer in southwest Wyoming. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)

With fatal chronic wasting disease infecting 84% of Wyoming’s mule deer herds, wildlife managers propose to thin buck populations, among other actions, to limit the disease’s spread.

The incurable disease of the central nervous system — which afflicts cervids such as deer, elk and moose — clearly affects the “health and viability” of some state wildlife herds, the Wyoming Game and Fish draft CWD Management Plan reads. It calls for increasing hunters’ harvests of targeted buck segments and reducing cervid density in worrisome areas. Deployment of agency sharpshooters and the culling of doe deer could also be part of the strategy. 

Such population reduction programs could last a decade or longer, according to the 38-page report, which includes 112 pages of supplemental material. Sustained culling “may be met with controversy from the public,” the draft plan acknowledges.

The strategy of thinning deer populations has provoked public backlash in some other states where it has been implemented, leading Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik to call for public support.

“Many of the strategies … are long-term efforts that may take over a decade,” he wrote in an introduction. “[W]e can’t do it alone.”

The draft plan also calls for reducing the artificial concentration of animals through statewide and local wildlife feeding bans. But the document punts on the issue of the state’s 22 winter elk feedgrounds, as Game and Fish announced in June.

The troubling and “complex” elk winter feedground issue, which entails herds west of the Continental Divide gathering in groups of up to several thousand, will be addressed in a supplemental report focusing on Teton, Lincoln and Sublette counties, the report says.

Although CWD has infected a quarter of the state’s elk herds, there’s been no documented case of CWD within elk herds associated with feedgrounds, the draft says.

Critics believe feedgrounds could allow CWD to race through a population because of the unnaturally close quarters they create.

First documented in the wild in Wyoming in 1984, CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that corrupts cellular proteins and usually creates holes in the brain. Because eradication is not feasible today, the plan’s goal is to reduce or limit CWD and its spread.

No proven strategy

Although CWD, a relative of Mad Cow Disease and the human Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, was discovered 40 years ago, there’s no proven management strategy to contain it. While animal-to-human transmission has never been documented, some research indicates it can cross the species barrier from cervid to primates, even perhaps through the consumption of muscle meat.

Game and Fish’s plan would be adaptable, and would address wildlife on a herd-by-herd basis. Officials are touring the state collecting public input before the draft is presented to the Game and Fish Commission for potential adoption. 

Mule deer CWD positive hunt areas as of November, 2019. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

A coalition of representatives from various interest groups worked for months to assemble the document that includes “a suite of prospective management strategies.”

The goal of reducing CWD prevalence and spread is coupled with another aim; to maintain healthy and sustainable wildlife populations, the draft says.

Testing will be an important component of the program. A goal is to collect 200 samples — usually done by extracting lymph nodes from a dead animal — from each herd unit over a three-year period.

It is extremely difficult to test live animals for CWD. The malady usually is not discernable in an animal until it is on its last legs. Most don’t live longer than 2.5 years after being infected, the document says.

Aside from elk feedgrounds, cervids, especially deer, gather in unnaturally concentrated groups in some towns. Game and Fish will recommend laws that would allow the agency to regulate citizen feeding. Traditional agricultural practices would not be included.

But the report acknowledges that agriculture — everything from irrigating hayfields to putting out mineral and salt licks — plays a role in concentrating deer and elk. .

“Many of these practices are beneficial to wildlife in the absence of disease,” the report reads. “However, given the increased distribution and prevalence of CWD, reducing wildlife concentrations at these points or features on the landscape may be prudent…”

Meanwhile, on feedgrounds…

Until a feedground plan is written, workers will continue low-density feeding by spreading out hay and dropping it on clean snow. Because CWD can be found in grass plants, the sources of feedground hay will come under scrutiny, the plan says.

Game and Fish could close specific feedgrounds if dispersing elk don’t damage or conflict with private property, or if the closure doesn’t result in a drastic reduction in elk numbers, the plan states.

A quarter of Wyoming elk herds are infected with CWD. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

While sick-looking elk will be killed, “large-scale culling of elk on a feedground and on native winter range is not an anticipated action to address CWD,” the plan states.

Game and Fish will continue to monitor wolves’ impacts on elk, including the “implementation of proper management actions” for those causing “unacceptable impacts” to elk at feedgrounds. The agency also will consider the “potential role” of predators and scavengers to reduce CWD transmission by killing and eating infected animals.

Game and Fish would team with other agencies to figure out how best to dispose of the carcasses of infected animals, the report says. The agency will continue to kill then test animals that show signs of CWD.

Regulations limiting the transport of animal parts will continue. Game and Fish will inform taxidermists and meat processors on “recommended practices regarding the handling and disposing of potentially infected cervid carcasses and parts,” the plan reads.

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Any carcasses donated by Game and Fish will be tested before given away. The Department may require testing of hunter-killed animals in some circumstances, although managers would prefer a voluntary approach, according to the plan.

Public meetings are scheduled Dec. 10 in Laramie, Dec. 11 in Casper and Dec. 12 in Sheridan.

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. I wish that I could voice an opinion on this topic, but I honestly don’t know what to think about this plan.

    If a similar strategy has been employed in an analogous situation, and it worked to some degree, I’d feel more confident of success. The methods used to control mad cow disease don’t seem applicable, since that involved complete elimination of herds.
    Might be useful to delve further into the pros and cons of the plan.