SHERIDAN — Hunters concerned about chronic wasting disease brought questions and concerns to the final public meeting regarding the CWD management plan with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department at the Best Western Sheridan Center Thursday.
The draft management plan was compiled based on the best available research and data for the state, though WGFD representatives shared some limitations with existing knowledge about CWD prevalence and transmission based on a lack of sampling data for certain herds and regions.
An interim report released in November includes recommendations for artificial concentrations of deer and elk, disposal of remains, education and communication about CWD, habitat research and improvement, management actions, migratory herds, surveillance, monitoring, testing, research and meat processing.
According to the report, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission expressed a desire to reduce CWD in Wyoming’s wildlife herds, however major changes necessary to do so may conflict with public interests. The public workshops provided an opportunity to reevaluate recommendations based on public priorities. One hundred forty-six people attended the first round of public meetings and provided 273 suggestions that were collated into 54 draft recommendations by the working group.
WGFD asked for patience with the management plan development process and for constructive contributions from the public. The complete team involved in developing next steps to address CWD includes the working group, WGFD staff and the public, deputy chief of wildlife Scott Edberg said.
The three-hour meeting included discussion of the collaborative process to integrate recommendations from the first round of public meetings, information about the science of CWD, review of surveillance and monitoring protocols, disease management and feedgrounds.
Edberg said the draft plan is not solidified — strategies are optional and flexible. After reviewing feedback from public meetings in Pinedale, Worland, Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, the final draft should be available in spring of 2020, Edberg said.
Some have expressed concern about taking a “hunt our way out” approach to CWD management but conservation is still important, Edberg said. Differences in prevalence across the state means general guidelines provided through the draft plan can be tailored to each region depending on applicability, he said.
As CWD is a growing issue in several U.S. states and other countries, the working group compared other state management plans while drafting their recommendations, Edberg said.
The WGFD wasn’t only looking for public feedback, but also sought to share what is known and unknown at this point regarding CWD prevalence and transmission.
Laboratory supervisor Hank Edwards said surveillance data was initially focused on the southeast part of the state in the 1990s, so there isn’t as much historical data available for the Sheridan region. Over the past 20 years, the Bighorn basin has shown an increase in hotspots of CWD-positive deer.
There are many factors to population resilience, including predation by mountain lions and wolves who are prone to attack weaker animals like those with CWD. All of that information contributes to modeling data about survival, Edwards said.
Edwards added that CWD is transmitted by prions that are resistant to treatment and normal body defenses, which slowly destroy the central nervous system. Signs of CWD in deer and elk include weight loss, drooling, drooping ears and general listlessness.
“The lights are on but nobody’s home,” Edwards said.
Elk populations have a lower prevalence and distribution rate than mule and white-tailed deer. It is unknown why antelope are resistant to the prions, he said.
One of the challenges with reducing the prevalence of CWD is the signs usually appear in the final four to eight weeks of the disease. An animal can have the disease for more than a year without showing visible signs. Many hunters have been surprised that an animal with good body condition tested positive for CWD, Edwards said. Prion proteins can exist for years through environmental contamination in animal feces, soil, food and water.
The risk to public health from CWD-positive meat is also unclear. Studies of macaques who were fed CWD-positive meat showed they contracted the illness through meat consumption.
“As far as human health is concerned…so far, most studies agree that there’s a substantial species barrier, but that barrier is probably not absolute,” Edwards said.
Hunters who are concerned about their meat should freeze it until test results come back, he said. The risk of transmitting CWD can be reduced by cleaning knives with bleach after processing an animal, though bleach is not effective at cleaning cutting boards or other porous surfaces, Edwards said.
Some meeting attendees were skeptical of the WGFD process for gathering sampling data. Edwards said a sample of about 200 is necessary to accurately represent a population, but some herd unit samples are smaller than others.
The agency tests road kill to gather data about some underrepresented deer populations, he said. WGFD staff attempt to contact hunters in the field to obtain samples rather than waiting for hunters to bring in their own, he said.
“For those of you who, of course, want to still keep hunting, you should,” Edwards said. “Maybe modify some of your practices. Don’t harvest animals that appear unusually thin or sick. Maybe look at that animal a little bit longer in the scope and assess its body condition.”
Edwards encouraged hunters to wear rubber and latex gloves when field dressing and reduce environmental contamination by properly disposing of carcasses in a landfill or biological incinerator. Head and spinal cord bones should be left at a kill site or properly disposed if they’re brought home, he said.
Edwards said it is unlikely CWD will be be eradicated and asked for patience with management actions as it will take five to 10 years to see the impact of management decisions. The draft CWD plan remains open for public comment through Jan. 15, 2020, on the WGFD website, wgfd.wyo.gov.