By Mark Heinz, public lands and wildlife reporter
The spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) onto the National Elk Refuge near Jackson could be inevitable, a refuge official said.
Incinerating infected elk carcasses would be one way of halting wasting disease’s spread among the thousands of animals that live on or near the refuge, deputy refuge manager Chris Dippel told Cowboy State Daily. Toward that end, a mobile animal crematory was recently placed on the refuge.
“There have been no positive tests so far for CWD on the refuge,” Dipple said. “(Getting the crematory) is more of an anticipatory move.”
“Hopefully, we won’t have to use the crematory. At least not for a few more years,” he said.
If used, the mobile crematorium will burn at 1,600-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and incinerate carcasses at a rate of 1,100 pounds per hour.
Assuming the average size of a male elk is 720 pounds and a female elk is 520 pounds, it could torch two carcasses in just over an hour.
Within the past few years, wasting disease was found in two dead animals – a deer and an elk — within about a mile of the refuge, Dipple said. The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The disease can spread through direct contact between animals, and can also linger for years in the soil or plants that elk and other wildlife eat, he said. So, one sure-fire way of stopping the spread is to cremate infected carcasses.
Elsewhere in Wyoming, CWD has become rampant among game herds, mostly in mule deer. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department this year has made it mandatory for deer hunters’ kills to be tested for CWD in several hunt areas. Those include some popular general tag areas in the Laramie Mountain range between Laramie and Wheatland, as well as some hunt areas in Fremont County.
Wasting disease is spread through prions, or malformed proteins. It causes a fatal degenerative nervous system and brain disease in elk, mule deer and other members of the deer family. It is similar to prion-triggered diseases that can infect and kill humans. Although there are so far no documented cases of CWD in humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Game and Fish recommend against eating meat from infected game animals.
During the late stages of infection, animals become emaciated, lethargic and disoriented. Elk don’t display any symptoms during the early stages of infection, Dippel said, and there are no practical ways of testing live animals.
The refuge has implemented “intensive testing” for CWD on samples from carcasses of animals that have been killed by hunters or died of natural causes on the refuge, Dipple said. Only disabled hunters with special permits are allowed to hunt there.
Animals’ lymph nodes are the best tissue to test for CWD. Refuge managers leave “head cans” in parking lots, where hunters can leave the heads of animals they’ve killed, so the lymph nodes can be removed and tested, he said.
“We’ll also try to have personnel go out to hunters’ kill sites on the refuge and collect samples,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must obtain a permit from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) before incinerating any carcasses. An application for the permit is pending, but there’s no reason to think it won’t be granted, Dipple said.
If approved, the crematory will operate from a location about a mile east of Jackson, according to a public notice of the permit application posted online by the DEQ.