- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Chronic wasting disease is spreading west. Wildlife officials find new cases each season of the deadly illness in deer and elk moving closer and closer to the state’s feedgrounds.

And recent research shows it could be a bigger deal than biologists originally thought.

“CWD is a significant concern for Wyoming’s wildlife - particularly for our deer populations,” said Dr. Mary Wood, state wildlife veterinarian for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “As prevalence increases in southeastern Wyoming, we are now seeing negative impacts in some of our deer herds from CWD.”

Because many experts fear the disease’s arrival on the feedgrounds could cripple western Wyoming’s elk herds, the National Elk Refuge is hosting a forum explaining the illness. The talks, scheduled for Wednesday, will explore the science behind the disease with information from experts like Wood.

“The purpose of this forum is to provide the public with the latest information on chronic wasting disease,” said refuge manager Steve Kallin. “It’s not to come and influence public policy, there’s no proposal for comments. It’s strictly scientific presentations.”

Chronic wasting disease, often simply referred to as CWD, attacks the brains of elk, deer and moose. It’s not a bacteria or virus or parasite like many wildlife diseases in the state, but is a protein that wreaks havoc on brains.

“It’s a protein that all of us have in all of ourselves, but for some reason this protein changes its shape and that shape difference causes changes in the brain matter,” said Hank Edwards, a Game and Fish wildlife disease specialist. “It actually causes microscopic sponge-like holes to form.”

Animals contract it from the environment or each other. It can take about 18 months for a creature to die, only showing signs in the last couple months, he added. Those signs include droopy ears, emaciation, excessive drooling and a blank stare.

Infected animals often end up dying not from the actual disease but from pneumonia. It is always fatal once contracted, Edwards said.

“There is a ton of things we don’t know about this disease,” he said. “It’s very difficult to study. It takes so long to manifest itself in a host. It’s not an easy disease to study in the wild.”

The signs are also similar to many other diseases, which means diagnoses can’t be made without tissue samples.

What researchers do know is that it was first found in a northern Colorado research facility in 1967, and has since spread to 21 states and Canada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is related to, but not the same as, mad-cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Game and Fish worked on a vaccine recently for the illness without success, Edwards said.

A study by retired state wildlife veterinarian Terry Kreeger appeared to show some elk had CWD-resistant genetics. One of the elk infected with CWD at the state’s wildlife research facility is more than a decade old and still alive, showing some may not ultimately die of the disease.

Edwards cautions too much optimism from the study. Even if it means some elk are resistant, it could take a century for those genes to spread enough to maintain a vibrant population.

“And during that time, the population will drop quite a ways but will start to rebound as those genetics become more common,” he added.

While the disease appears to hit deer harder than elk and spreads more quickly in deer than elk, the National Elk Refuge is concerned about the impacts if and when it reaches the feedground.

Refuge officials hope to come up with a plan for dealing with the disease, said Kallin, the superintendent. He does not have a timeline yet but said it will be a public process.

Game and Fish officials are also researching ways to manage the disease.

In the meantime, Kallin hopes to educate more of the public on CWD, its impacts and what is being done in other parts of the country.

“We pulled together a planning team for the forum who came up with a list of questions people generally ask,” Kallin said. “We hope anyone interested in learning more about CWD will attend.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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