The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is leading a series of meetings around the state as part of an effort to gather public input as it prepares to revise its chronic wasting disease management plan.
A Laramie meeting is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. Tuesday at the Laramie Region Office, 1212 S. Adams St.
The meetings are a step in a collaborative process facilitated by the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute, and they’ll include opportunities for discussion and feedback from participants. Following the meetings, public input will be presented to a new 32-member working group, which will also make recommendations about the new plan.
That group has two members with Laramie connections. Brant Schumaker is an associate professor at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, and Libby Lankford is part of the agricultural community.
CWD, which is distributed around the state and has been in southeast Wyoming for decades, is a fatal disease that affects mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose. It belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which are caused by abnormal proteins that attack the brain called prions. As proteins without nucleic acid, and neither bacteria nor virus, prions actually aren’t living organisms.
Wildlife with CWD often show no signs of illness even after testing positive. As the disease progresses, symptoms include reluctance to move, excessive salivation, droopy ears, increased drinking and lethargy. The disease is incurable and always fatal.
Scientists think it’s transmitted through bodily fluids and infected carcasses or by ingesting CWD prions, which can contaminate the soil and water and remain in an environment for years.
The disease was first identified in mule deer in southeast Wyoming in 1985. Since then, it’s been spreading west and is now found in a majority of the state. In the core endemic area that includes herds in the Laramie Range and Laramie Peak areas, wildlife biologists have seen a decline in deer herd size that they attribute to CWD. The effect on deer herds elsewhere in the state and on other species is less clear.
There’s no proof yet that CWD can be transmitted to humans from eating infected meat, but studies show it can be transmitted to non-human primates. CWD is closely related to mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which do affect humans. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization advise against eating meat from animals that test positive.
Hunters can have their harvested animal tested at a Game and Fish check station or regional office. Results are usually available within three weeks. Hunters can also have their harvested animal tested as part of Game and Fish’s statewide monitoring program, and they’re asked to report sick wildlife.
Game and Fish spokesperson Janet Milek said the goal of the revised CWD plan is to incorporate public opinion as the department considers how to manage the disease.
“Learning and seeing new ways that people would like to see their wildlife managed in the face of CWD is the end goal,” she said.
The working group was appointed earlier this spring and includes members from around the state and across professions and stakeholder groups. The group is scheduled to meet in July, August and September to make recommendations to the department, which will write the plan in the fall and present a draft during another series of public meetings next winter. The plan is scheduled to be presented to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission next spring, Milek said.
Lankford, who lives on a family ranch near Sheep Mountain, said she watches deer and elk migrate through the property, including those with CWD.
“We’re able to see firsthand what this disease does,” she said.
Lankford said she favors using hunting as a tool to manage CWD, perhaps by culling sick animals. She encouraged everyone who’s interested in CWD to attend a meeting and participate in the process.
“This is the time for people in our area to voice their opinions on how to help this disease not spread any further,” she said.
Shumaker was unavailable for comment before deadline Friday but did emphasize in an email that the entire process, including the meetings of the working group, is open to the public.
The current management plan was approved in 2016 with the stated goals of delaying the spread of CWD, monitoring its distribution, coordinating research with other agencies and disseminating information to the public. Eradication is the desired objective, but likely not possible, according to the plan.
CWD efforts already underway in Wyoming include statewide surveillance, a vaccine trial, impact studies and distribution research. The department has prohibited game farms, removed deer around Thermopolis and Cody, partnered with other states and provinces to explore management options, collaborated on diagnostic tests and hired staff to monitor elk feed grounds in northwest Wyoming.
Milek said the new plan’s suggestions will guide wildlife managers around the state.
“We (will) have these possible solutions — rooted in science and rooted in public approval — so that we know this is the best management practice that we can do for this area,” she said.
The Laramie meeting will be recorded and posted online at wgfd.wyo.gov/Get-Involved/CWD-Working-Group, where people can also submit comments. Additional meetings are scheduled for Casper, Sheridan, Worland and Pinedale.