Last week the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission asked Wyoming to stop feeding elk during the winter on the feeding grounds in the northwest part of that state. There are more than 20 Wyoming feeding grounds, some at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, the rest in counties south of the refuge.
The commission’s letter was sparked by the discovery this fall of Chronic Wasting Disease in Montana deer just north of the Wyoming border in hunt units south of Bridger. The disease has infected both mule and white-tailed deer. CWD has since been detected in a mule deer buck killed just south of the Canadian border north of Chester. Since CWD is present in Canadian provinces north of us — Alberta and Saskatchewan — it’s probable the disease has been migrating into Montana across both borders, as well as from the east, where CWD was previously confirmed in the Dakotas.
As far as CWD goes, the commission’s letter probably arrives too late. The disease is in Montana, maybe it’s been here for some time, and evidence from other states suggests eradication is unlikely. The feeding grounds are, or will become, CWD hot spots, but eliminating them now won’t do much to slow the inevitable spread of the disease across Montana.
That doesn’t mean Montana’s suggestion to shut down the feeding grounds is a pointless idea. Wildlife agencies have long warned of the perils of feeding wildlife. While big ungulates such as deer and elk can at times behave something like cattle, they are not livestock. Artificial feeding unnaturally concentrates animals, can interfere with migration patterns and can habituate wildlife to humans.
The worst-case scenario is that wildlife feeding will have the opposite effect from that intended: less wildlife.
There’s another problem with supplemental feeding. The very nature of feeding elk undermines the “wild” in wildlife. It may at times seem a fine line between wildlife management and animal husbandry, but for me, systematic supplemental feeding crosses that line.
The threat CWD poses to Montana wildlife and hunting culture is uncertain. Until research proves with some certainty that the disease can’t jump the species barrier from deer to human, collecting the lymph nodes from game and waiting on CWD test results before consuming the animal may become part of every hunter’s post-kill ritual. That’s probably a good idea in both identified infection zones, and also in places like the Flathead where CWD hasn’t yet been detected.
Deer and elk populations didn’t crash along with the spread of the disease in Wyoming. There are certainly problems, especially with mule deer, but the fate of mulies may be death by a thousand cuts. In some instances, wildlife populations may be healthy enough to withstand the added mortality of CWD.
But for populations already on the edge, the effect of CWD could be additive, resulting in long-term declines for deer and elk. Take increasing development in wildlife habitat, add stressors such as climate change and predators (human and otherwise), and then layer on a persistent, fatal disease. For struggling herds, CWD may be the cut that results in thinning or disappearing herds.
In the meantime, Montana wildlife officials are trying to determine the extent of the disease. A special CWD hunt was recently approved in those southern hunt units near Bridger. All 1,200 special licenses for the hunt sold out in three hours. The plan is to kill and test 200 mule deer and another 200 whitetail.
CWD is Montana’s new reality, Wyoming’s elk feeding grounds not withstanding. We have no choice but to adapt.