With an ever-deadly neurological disease in moose and deer getting closer to Wyoming's moose feed, it's time for wildlife managers and the general public to have serious discussions, said Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott.
Chronic wasting disease is slowly moving westward through the state since its discovery in 1985 in southeastern Wyoming. Maps of their propagation look like spider webs that continue to emerge eastward and westward, northward and southward.
"I think chronic diseases are the biggest threat to the North American model since its inception," Talbott said recently, referring to the concept that hunters and anglers pay for their fish and wildlife protection through license sales. "If all these worst-case scenarios turn out, that could be a real turning point for us."
As a result of these concerns, Game and Fish plans to conduct a massive public information campaign across the state to talk to people about the seriousness of the disease, what could happen if and when it reaches the moose feeders, and how hunters can help themselves.
In terms of numbers, it is easy for an athlete to stay away from the disease.
In mules and whiteflies it kills almost every animal that infects it. Elk is likely. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, stag hunters make 62 percent of the $ 498 million in licenses and licenses sold nationwide. Of the $ 18 billion in hunting spending across the country, 47 percent came from stag hunters. Hiring deer supported more than 310,000 jobs across the country.
"If the hunt were a company, the amount that athletes spend on Fortune 500 in 2011, let alone today, would be," said Chris Dolnack, Senior Vice President and CMO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "It's time we started behaving this way, because hunting deer and deer is a tremendous economic force."
Dolnack spoke at a summit meeting recently held by Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in a series of panels on chronic wasting disease.
All these numbers mean that if deer populations fall dramatically or if fears persist that the disease may spread to humans, hunting may not be able to pay for wildlife.
"CWD is the biggest threat to the future hunting of deer and deer," he said.
Unlike many other wildlife diseases, Chronic Wasting Disease is confusing especially for wildlife managers, biologists and disease specialists. It is caused by a prion or protein that mutates in the body. When each mutated protein encounters another protein in the body, it changes immediately. The scientific name is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, which literally means Swiss cheese in the brain, said Jonathan Mawdsley, a senior science advisor to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Eventually, the disease causes holes in an animal's brain that cause visible signs of lethargy, excessive salivation, and weight loss. While animals eventually die of the disease, they also have a higher chance of dying from something like a carcision or a predator than a healthy deer.
It can not be cured by a known vaccine or killed by an antibiotic. It goes from animal to animal by touch, and some research shows that it can live in the ground for up to 16 years.
The human variation of the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In cattle, it is mad cow disease, in domestic sheep scrapie. Until recently, the researchers believed that it could not be passed on to humans, but a recent study from Canada shows that eating monkey venison can make it a kind of monkey, the macaque. Although even this study creates more questions than answers, Talbott said.
"It does not seem that anything is clear with this disease," Talbott said. "The only thing I can tell you is when an animal gets it, it dies."
The disease, as he and other wildlife managers say, can affect the population of deer and elk.
While it can be easy to feel helpless, wildlife managers like Talbott say that hunters can already play a role in contributing to research and helping prevent its spread.
First, drive no cadavers, he said. Leave brain and spinal cord tissue in the field at the site of the kill or take it to a landfill.
"Dispose of your carcasses properly and pay close attention to the transport regulations for the carcass," he said. "You used to see highways covered with carcasses, but proper carcass disposal and transportation are two things you can do now."
And always have your pet tested if it's from an area that is known to have CWD, or anywhere Game and Fish is currently looking for a possible infection.
Game and Fish also plans a public information campaign to help the public first understand the severity of the disease and then begin brainstorming possible solutions. It will be similar to the Mule Deer Initiative, which began in 2013 with fighting deer herds in the Wyoming Range and Platte Valley.
It's not a flash in the pan, it's not like EHD coming in and killing a bunch of deer and going away in a year, "Talbott said, referring to epizootic hemorrhagic disease. "It's very persistent, there's a lot of news, we need to equip ourselves and deal with this disease, and public education is a big part of it."
States and the federal government need to invest in fighting chronic diseases, said Dan Forster, vice president and chief conservation officer of the Archery Trade Association.
Instead of funding the hunting industry, especially deer hunting, state and federal agencies should consider it as an investment.
"The money we need from surveillance remains on the backs of hunters," he said. "We have to invest in the things that help us fight the disease, that's surveillance, that's research, and that's communication."