Because an ever-deadly neurological disease among elk and deer is getting closer to the moose ground, it's time for nature managers and the public to have a serious conversation, says Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott.
Chronic disease is slowly wasting westward across the state since it was discovered in 1985 in the southeast of Wyoming. Cards with its spread resemble spider webs that once reach east and west, north and south.
"I think chronic sick leave is the biggest threat to the North American model since its inception," Talbott said recently, referring to the concept that hunters and fishermen pay for the management of fish and wildlife by license sales. "If all of these worst-case scenarios occur, this could be a real game changer for us."
Because of these concerns, Game and Fish is planning to roll out a massive public information campaign across the state to talk with people about the severity of the disease, what can happen if and when it reaches the feedgrounds of elk and how hunters themselves can help.
Looking at the numbers, it is easy for an athlete to be discouraged about the disease.
In donkey and white-tailed deer it kills almost every animal that infects it. This is probably the case in moose. Nationwide deer hunters make up 62 percent of the $ 498 million in permits and permits sold in 2011, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Out of $ 18 billion in hunting spending across the country, 47 percent of deer hunters. And the hunt for deer supported more than 310,000 jobs across the country.
"If hunting was a business, the amount that athletes would stop in the Fortune 500 in 2011, let alone today," said Chris Dolnack, senior vice president and CMO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "It is time for us to start behaving like that, because hunting deer and deer is a huge economic force."
Dolnack spoke as part of a series of panels about chronic illness at a recent summit organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
All these figures mean that if the deer populations drop dramatically, or if the fear continues that the disease can spread to humans, the hunt will no longer be able to pay to manage wild animals.
"CWD is the biggest threat to the future of hunting deer and deer," he said.
Chronic illness, unlike many other diseases in wild animals, is particularly confusing for nature managers, biologists and disease specialists. It is caused by a prion or protein that mutates in the body. When each mutated protein meets another protein in the body, it changes that protein immediately. The scientific name is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, which literally means Swiss cheese in the brain, said Jonathan Mawdsley, a senior science adviser for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Eventually the disease causes holes in the brain of an animal, causing visible signs such as lethargy, excessive drooling and weight loss. While animals will eventually die from the disease, they also have a higher chance of dying by something like a car crash or a predator than a healthy deer.
It can not be cured by a known vaccine or killed by an antibiotic. It passes from animal to animal by touch, and some studies show that it can live in the soil for up to 16 years.
The human variant of the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In cattle it is mad cow disease and in domestic sheep it is called scrapie. Until recently, researchers thought it could not be passed on to people, but an unpublished research from Canada indicates that it can be given to a kind of monkey called the macaque by consuming contaminated venison. Although even that study creates more questions than answers, Talbott said.
"It does not appear that there is anything wrong with this disease," Talbott said. "The only thing I can tell you is when an animal gets it, it dies."
The disease can, he and other nature managers warn, have consequences at population level for shepherds of deer and elk.
Although it might be easy to feel helpless, nature managers like Talbott say that hunters can already play a role by contributing to research and helping to prevent their spread.
First, do not drive carcasses around, he said. Let the brain and spinal cord tissue in the field kill in place or take it to a landfill.
"Dispose of your carcasses in the right way and pay attention to the guidelines for the transport of carcasses," he said. "You used to see provincial roads littered with carcasses, but the proper removal and transport of carcasses are two things people can do now."
And always have your animal tested if it comes from an area known to have CWD, or anywhere that Game and Fish is currently investigating possible infections.
Game and Fish also plans to launch a public information campaign to help the public first understand the severity of the disease and then start brainstorming about possible solutions. It will be similar to the Mule Deer initiative that began in 2013 with struggling herds of deer in the Wyoming Range and Platte Valley.
"This does not go away, it's not a flash, it's not like EHD coming in and killing a bunch of deer and disappearing within a year," said Talbott, referring to hemorrhagic epizootic. "This is very persistent, there are many reports there, we have to prepare and deal with this disease, and public education is a big part of that."
States and the federal government should invest in the fight against chronic wasting diseases, said Dan Forster, the vice president and chief conservation officer of the Archery Trade Association.
Instead of considering the hunting industry, particularly hunting deer, as something to finance, government and federal agencies should see it as an investment.
"The money we need from surveillance stays on the back of hunters," he said. "We need to invest in those things that we know are helping us fight the disease, that is surveillance, that is research, and that is communication."