Wasting disease in wildlife inches toward Yellowstone

The illness affects moose, elk and deer and may be carried by long-distance migrations.


This January, a bull elk living on a commercial game farm in northern Utah tested positive for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose. In March, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates published a map showing the disease spreading westward through Wyoming — possibly carried by ultra-long-distance deer migrations. It’s now less than 40 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

The National Park Service performs a rectal biopsy for chronic wasting disease on an Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Tina Belle Valdiserri

For wildlife advocates and sportsmen, this is troubling news. The disease has long worried Wyoming hunters east of the Continental Divide. If CWD continues to spread westward, it will affect those west of the Divide in the state, including visitors to Yellowstone. But right now there are holes in the research, so no one’s quite sure how quickly the disease is spreading.

In 2003, Congress passed a bill to expand research funding, bolstering efforts to track down CWD. But that funding has decreased in recent years, creating a decline in reporting. On top of that, different states have different ways of tracking the disease, making it hard to understand over the broader region.

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Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation, a sportsmen’s group that is part of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, says more funding might help researchers figure out whether or not it’s spreading, and where. “We’re not having a lot of new (infected) areas show up,” he says, “and maybe that’s because we aren’t looking as hard.”
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