Mule deer buck in Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

Recently the Wyoming Game and Fish reported that between 2016 and 2020, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was found in over 60% of the mule deer tested in Central Wyoming. Recent testing suggests it may be as high as 78% of all deer evaluated. A map shows the occurrence of the disease in Wyoming.

CWD is a fatal disease that can affect all members of the cervid family, including deer, elk, and moose.

There is a similar prion disease that infects humans, called Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease. It is also fatal. These prion diseases cause neurological tissue and systems degeneration, so the brain has holes appearing like a sponge, among other fatal problems.

Some scientists believe consuming CWD-infected animals could jump the species barrier and infect humans.

An experiment led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency resulted in the transmission of CWD from cervid (moose, deer, and elk) meat to macaques monkeys. The monkeys were infected by an injection into the brain, and CWD-infected muscle was fed to the animals.

This potential risk to human health has led to cautionary messages from Fish and Game Departments not to eat any infected animals. CWD has been found in 26 states and 3 Canadian provinces, including the Rocky Mountain States of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and recently Idaho.

Hunters are cautioned about ingesting or even contacting infected animals’ blood and other fluids. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is also evidence that transmission could happen from just contact with the blood or fluids of an infected animal, which means, at the very least, hunters must wear gloves while butchering any animal.

The World Health Organization warns against feeding infected animals to other animals. It cautions: “no tissue that is likely to contain the BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy] agent, nor part or product of any animal which has shown signs of a TSE [Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy] should enter the (human or animal) food chain.”

CWD has a long latency period like the closely related Mad Cow Disease. In other words, long before a deer or elk appears sick, it may have the disease. Unfortunately, that means there is no way for a hunter to know if the creature they shot has the disease until the animal is tested.

Infected herds have few older animals. Photo George Wuerthner

One piece of evidence of the prevalence of the disease in a population is there are few “old” animals. In highly infected deer herds, few animals survive past 4-5 years before succumbing to the disease. As a result, in some states, a control mechanism has increased the hunting of all deer.

Most hunters appear willing to kill and often consume potentially infected animals despite these warnings.

Although CWD is transmitted from animal to animal, the prevailing thought is that prions remain in the soil or on plants consumed by healthy animals, who then get the disease. Crowded herds are more susceptible to infection.

Wyoming operates state feedgrounds that concentrate elk facilitating transmission of CWD. Photo George Wuerthner

This brings up the problem in Wyoming, where the state operates 22 elk feeding stations to provide winter forage. Under such concentrated feeding operations, it is suspected that disease transmission is facilitated. For this reason, conservationists have attempted to close down feedgrounds, especially on national forest lands.

Despite the danger of CWD to Wyoming’s deer and elk herds, the state has resisted dismantling feed grounds. The reasons are much like the opposition to mask-wearing and vaccines to reduce the spread of Covid.

Many in Wyoming feel the threat of CWD transmission to humans is negligible. Also, many outfitters and hunters want the state to maintain high elk numbers for obvious reasons. While ranchers feel the feedgrounds help keep elk from moving on to private lands in winter.

Fish and Game agencies tend to downplay the risk of CWD transmission to humans since most of their income is derived from the sale of hunter licenses and tags.

Wolves can detect a sick deer or elk before human hunters. Photo George Wuerthner

This brings me to wolves. Wolves can detect a sick deer or elk long before it is evident to human hunters. Some modeling suggests wolves could reduce CWD to nearly undetectable levels.

Yet Wyoming, like Idaho and Montana, has embarked on a wolf killing program that could effectively reduce wolf numbers to the point where they provide no control on the spread of CWD.

In essence, wolves are like masks and vaccines for Covid spread. They won’t eliminate CWD, but they could help control its spread. Like Covid vaccines, the goal isn’t to eradicate CWD but reduce its incidence to the point where few deer, elk, or other wildlife are infected. Wolves may be the “vaccine” needed to limit CWD.

Not surprisingly, Wyoming is also a state whose human population largely rejects mask-wearing, and many are opposed to vaccines. As a result, Wyoming is dead last in the percentage of its population that has received Covid vaccinations. Only 47% of Wyoming residents are vaccinated compared to Vermont, where 77% have been vaccinated.

Despite good evidence that wolves could help protect Wyoming’s game populations, there is resistance to science and a suspicion of a government authority.

Carcass of elk killed by wolves. CWD can dramatically reduce prey and thus other animals, including wolves and scavengers that relied on wolf kills. Photo George Wuerthner

The long-term implications of CWD on the evolutionary trajectory of herd populations and age structure are yet unknown. For instance, in uninfected populations, the oldest and most mature males do the majority of breeding, and often older females hold the “cultural” knowledge about migration routes, calving grounds, and winter ranges. However, in CWD herds with a high incidence of infection, there are few “old” individuals.

The implications of CWD-induced population declines of deer and elk for other wildlife, including predators like wolves, cougar, and bears, much fewer scavengers is also a consideration. If there were a significant reduction in elk and deer herds, the ability to support these animals would be at risk.

Colorado has had the most prolonged documented evidence of CWD infections, and some herds sustain more than a 20% infection rate. But, thus far, it has not led to the wholesale collapse of Colorado’s ungulate populations.

Rather than slaughter wolves, states should be promoting wolves as a natural and effective agent that can reduce CWD occurrence in ungulate populations. Photo George Wuerthner

Nevertheless, promoting wolves instead of slaughtering them might be the best antidote to CWD spread. But like vaccines and mask-wearing, misinformation and prejudice may ultimately lead to the loss of hunting opportunities as well as the decline in wildlife populations.

 

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

20 Responses to Of Wolves, Chronic Wasting Disease and Covid

  1. avatar Makuye says:

    “…reluctant to downplay…” may be an editing error, George.
    The proteins flipped into infectious state are denatured – broken apart – by UV light, and experiment has shown those protected by shading in soil and elsewhere, ARE persistent — up to the third year in one molecular study, although microorganisms and other also normally uptake the useful CHON.

    The issue of “species-jumping” by infectious proteins is an important one. Proteins are huge formations of amino acids. While amino acids are few- about 22 are useful for evovled life, their shapes and combinatorial mobility are a result of slight differences imposed by small differences in RNA (therefore DNA) nucleic acid differences, as little as one A, T (or U), C, or G change. This variance means that different species make and use different protein variants. But, as you know, those slight differences can be bridged sooner or later in a single individual, who for some reason of minor genetic or epigenetic change shifts just one or a very few component five total nucleic acids, into another, useful and therefore replicateed by another species. In th ecase of prions, the agile , changeable electromagnetic structure shaping the protein is or can be completely separate to such a change making a proteinrather identical to the species into which it is introduced.
    I’ve pointed out elseqwhere that the stronger stomach acids, for one preventative, of Carnivorae better breaking down of CWD proteins- these issues are evolutionary, adaptations that prevent many deadly problems from being induced in a taxon that is obligate carnivore.
    But NOT in omnivores, like ourselves (the specifics of course, molecular are complex).

    With such attitudes as you mention, expect some outbreak of variant. In fact, “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob” (vCJD), colloquially called Mad Cow, refers exactly to this.

    The diseaases in question, CWD taking two years and more in ungulates, and CJD requiring as much as a couple decades to show, BOTH 100% fatal, with no likelihood of diminution of virulence, as the stiff, useless proteins destroy the function of any cell uptaking them.

    I’ve been warning of this for a decade, and we CANNOT even know if it has not already happened in a few eaters of ungulates already, until the slow but widespread inevitable cellular, therefore tissue, destruction shows in autopsy. Proteins are of multivariate use, the same ones can contribute to visible phenotypic variation and to the subtle cognitive activities of neurons, glia.

    Since neural cells express more of the genome than any other cell, they are both backed up by fail-safe alternative dendritic and synaptic activity, and more likely to finally trade in the prions (the neologism means proteinacious infectious {particle], as the human brain is relatively larger than the ungulate for entirely social and communicative reasons specific to ourselves) than any other, even though such cells as epithelia are quickly overturning – and thus active in shedding. THe dead cells of hair in fact are a major source of infection, as are the dead cells in feces, and those cast in saliva.

    The crazed killers in power (in Montana, Gianforte, the killer of the Yellowstone Wolf, is merely one of many in many states, who in general appoint wildlife commissioners who love to trophy or otherwise hunt or eliminate species not regarded as economically advantageous to leave in ecosystem place) will not likely ever change their hate/exclusion policy in response to even one or MANY of their own cohort deteriorating and dying miserably from some vCWD.

    Only those who profit from the killing industry, might be aroused, should profits diminish.

    Addendum: California is in fact STILL the LARGEST source of trophy and elk hunters -though Idaho and other states no longer publish Tag-buyers origins, the information remains on record. The fact that the USA remains a federation with states’laws superseding federal in wildlife issues, making all fauna not listed as vulnerable, threatened, in danger of extinction, is an impossible barrier to competency and preservation of native species in ecologically functional numbers.

    Arrogantly, we manage other animals, while manifestly NOT differing from them in any cognitively substantial way, our herds and dominants violently clashing and head-butting for the moment’s social dominance.

  2. avatar Beeline says:

    While most of the state wildlife/game departments have accepted that prions are the problem, prions by themselves may not be the real cause of CWD. It has never really made sense that normal cellular prion protein would just some how go rogue. Still, most of the funding goes to prion research rather than exploring wider ranges of causation.

    Other possible causes include a bacterial or viral agent like the spiroplasm that Dr. Frank Bastian discovered in tissue from known CWD specimens. There is also a chemical known as Aze (azetidine-2-carboxylic acid) that is found in sugar beet products that has been documented to cause neurological disorders in sheep and may also be implicated in multiple sclerosis in humans. Dr. Stephanie Seneff noted that Aze in combination with glyphosate may cause cellular damage and Dr. Edward Rubenstein stated “… Aze (molecular) misincorporation may add to the cellular burden of misfolded proteins…”

    Note that deer and elk are fed supplemental feed which may contain glyphosate residues and that luring deer with formulas that contain sugar beet products are used in many eastern states where CWD infections are high. There is also a disease described in goats and sheep caused by a lack of copper in the diet that mimics the symptoms of CWD. Several studies show that CWD infection rates in deer are higher in areas where soils are low in copper.

    CWD has more lately been described in camels in north Africa. I find it more than a coincidence that north Africa has been growing sugar beets.

    Science has been so marginalized, character assassinated, and narrowly restricted to competing for research funding that too many “red flags” go uninvestigated. So now more species are getting infected and our wildlife continues to suffer.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Seems to me more investigation & research is needed rather than grabbing at the first answer to come along – thanks for all that information = the idea that there could possibly be a road to a cure or treatment for MS in humans – at the very least a new idea that might provide help. Sugar in many instances isnt good for us – much less for animals. And yes, our scientists have been pushed out of far too many areas – even before the past few years. We need them – badly.

    • avatar Rewildit says:

      Prions are the causative agent of these disease. This is well established. Misfolded and infectious prions can be propagated in vitro by a method known as PMCA. This is used as a sensitive assay to detect infectious prions. It’s possible cofactors can influence the dynamics of protein misfolding, but the data supporting misfolded prion as the pathogen is far, far stronger than any competing hypothesis.

      The only reason I can think of why someone would refuse to believe the evidence is to avoid the unpleasant truths associated with the disease – that prions are environmentally stable and difficult to inactivate, infected animals are unsafe to eat and touch, which can negatively impact revenue streams associated with hunting animals prone to infection, and that the disease cannot be “cured”.

  3. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I don’t know why people are not listening to this, and won’t.

    When we upset or change the balance of nature, this is what happens. Back when mad cow disease was discovered, it was dismaying to read that sheep and cattle were being fed ‘animal byproducts’ (another one of those awful euphemistic words) in their feed.

    Interesting that Colorado has the highest prolonged incidence and infection rate of CWD in the West. What’s telling here is they have not had populations of wolves.

    It will be interesting to see if this changes now that wolves are being welcomed back to Colorado (for the most part).

  4. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    So there is probably an overlap in the demographics and politics of those in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana who hardly worry about taking precautions regarding the transmission of Covid19, and those who do not take precautions in consuming venison contaminated with chronic wasting disease. There is also an overlap in the demographics and politics of decision makers on these and related things such as mandating Covid vaccinations and/or support for the restoration and conservation of wolves and other predatory animals that serve to reduce the spread of CWD.

    I am not amazed. Sadly, I kind of expected it.

    Expected human life span in the United States began to decline in the United States in about 2018. Now has fallen to the same life span as in 2003.

    Thank you George for this great article.

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Under “Sports”:

    “Twenty of Yellowstone National Park’s renowned gray wolves roamed from the park and were shot by hunters in recent months — the most killed by hunting in a single season since the predators were reintroduced to the region more than 25 years ago, according to park officials.”

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/hunters-kill-20-yellowstone-wolves-that-roamed-out-of-park/ar-AASvuOM?ocid=msedgdhp&pc=U531

    • avatar Mark L says:

      I’m curious if calls are allowed for wolves, or was the leaving of Yellowstone by chance alone. Regardless, a take of over 20% of the total population is stupid

      • avatar Ida Lupine says:

        Yes. They cannot respect the Park. It has been done for years, but the quotas did somewhat protect them.

        Now all bets are off. There should be protection for at least the Park wolves, calling for a buffer zone again. It, to me, will make things not quite so easy.

  6. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Here’s an article from Newsweek about it too, the targeting of Yellowstone National Park’s wolves. Everyone knew this would happen. Why is it being allowed?:

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/hunters-killing-gray-wolves-after-they-leave-yellowstone-at-rapid-rate-entire-pack-dead/ar-AASvROz?ocid=msedgntp

  7. avatar Rich says:

    Endangered Wolf Anubis Illegally Killed in Arizona

    https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/01/08/federal-action-demanded-after-endangered-wolf-anubis-illegally-killed-arizona

    “Outraged wildlife advocates demanded action from the U.S. government on Friday after learning that an endangered Mexican gray wolf—famous for wandering across the Southwest and named Anubis by schoolchildren—was illegally shot and killed in the Kaibab National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona.”

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      They just will not quit, will they. I really hope that people will not continue to delude themselves about these wolf killings.

      Protections need to be brought back, and the out-of-control taking advantage needs to stop. Because USF&W refuses to confront the issue, the states are taking wolf killing as far as it will go.

      Supposedly USF&W is in the process of examining the issue, but you wonder how long it will take.

  8. avatar Nancy says:

    With 600 thousand subscribers, lets hope some get outraged enough to contact state reps, politicians, etc. about this:

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      He says it well. We tried it, it didn’t work, and it progresses every year. Montana used to be one of the least offensive, seeming to realize the value of tourism and the Park. What happened?

      Thanks, Nancy. 🙁

      • avatar Nancy says:

        No, Ida, thank Beau because he hasn’t given up yet 🙂 Re your comment: “We tried it, it didn’t work, and it progresses every year”

        boils down to still not enough exposure and I’m glad he did give it exposure on his channel… which reaches over 500 thousand subscribers.

        • avatar Ida Lupine says:

          ‘They’ tried the delisting on the honor system, didn’t work, and killings progresses every year is what I should have written. 🙂

          I do thank Beau and glad it is getting the exposure it should!

  9. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Will include “socially acceptable” wolf management, supposedly (source: Wolf Patrol):

    https://www.michigan.gov/DNR/0,4570,7-350-86469-574948–,00.HTML

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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