Wyoming Game and Fish director Scott Talbot presented at a special discussion about Chronic Wasting Disease with the Lincoln County Commissioners on Tuesday, Oct. 2. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Theresa Davis)
The Lincoln County Commissioners hosted a special discussion at their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3, in Kemmerer to talk about chronic wasting disease in the county.
Joining the Commissioners were Scott Talbot, director of Wyoming Game and Fish; Luke Esch, director of Solid and Hazardous Waste for Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality; Mark Newcomb, chair of the Teton County Commissioners; Heather Overholser, Superintendent of Teton County Solid Waste and Recycling; and Mike Schmid, Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner. Present via video conference from the Afton office were Rep. Marti Halverson and Thayne landfill operator Dirk Jensen.
Wyoming Game and Fish literature states that “chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a chronic, fatal disease of the central nervous system in mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose.”
“Once an animal contracts CWD, there’s no vaccine and no cure,” said Game and Fish director Scott Talbot at the meeting. “Some people mistakenly think it’s transferred by bacteria, but it’s actually a prion, or protein. The disease has been in the environment for 60 years.”
The Lincoln County Commissioners have discussed Chronic Wasting Disease at the last few commission meetings, and this special discussion was the commission’s effort to bring several agencies together to learn more about CWD and propose solutions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “CWD proteins (prions) likely spread between animals through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food or water.”
“Chronic wasting disease is spreading across the state, so we need to look at what we’re going to do for the future, because this problem is not going away,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Kent Connelly.
Talbot said there have been two confirmed cases of CWD in Lincoln County, including a moose about six years ago and a female deer about two years ago. But the disease is spreading across the state from areas where it is more concentrated, like the portion of the state from Casper to Wheatland.
“Right now, our best guess is the disease is transferred by saliva from nose to nose contact,” Talbot said. “There are some public misunderstandings about the disease, so Game and Fish is working on a public outreach process.”
Talbot said that areas of the state that have been dealing with CWD for decades tend to have different perspectives on the issue than those areas where the disease is just now being confirmed.
The CDC has stated that “to date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions.”
Luke Esch, Director of Solid and Hazardous Waste for Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, spoke about the roles landfills play in this issue.
“Nothing on the state end requires landfills to accept certain kinds of waste,” Esch said. “That’s a local decision. It’s a dynamic time in Wyoming, because many small landfills are closing and more transfer stations are popping up to transport waste to larger regional landfills.”
Esch said the DEQ is at the beginning of conversations with Game and Fish about CWD and its effects on the environment.
Lincoln County Solid Waste Director Mary Crosby also spoke at the meeting.
“My concern is there’s an assumption that plunking the animal in a landfill locks it up,” Crosby said. “That does prevent groundwater contamination, but birds can still transfer the contaminated remains. With landfills and this CWD issue, we’re also worried about what’s happening on the surface.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Robert King said the commission had spoken with the Butcher Block meat-processing business in Thayne about this issue. Members of the Williams family who own the business were present at the meeting.
“They have agreed to work with us by keeping the animal waste in a separate container,” King said. “Body-bagging is the thing to do right now.”
Crosby said the bags are designed to contain the bodily fluids that may include the CWD prions.
“It’s a decision we as the county can make,” King said. “At this point we don’t know if anyone really knows enough about this disease, but we feel like (bagging) is a good solution right now.”
“We have different problems in Lincoln County than Teton County,” Crosby directed toward Game and Fish and DEQ. “So, if Game and Fish writes this off, and the CDC tells us to ‘exercise caution and care,’ what is caution and care at the local level?
“This is a very complex problem,” Talbot said. “A very small percentage of deer are infected with CWD. One thing we may have to do is more testing, which is an expensive and complicated process, and we would have to gear up for more if we anticipated a greater public demand.”
Talbot said that right now there are no confirmed cases of CWD in Idaho, but cases have been confirmed in Montana, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. The Game and Fish director also pointed out that because of migration patterns, the state can expect natural movement of CWD — but Talbot said Game and Fish is “engaged in several different projects to stop the spread of CWD.”
The main areas of concern that Game and Fish is examining in regards to CWD deal with roadkill, hunters and meat processors. Talbot said that last year, Game and Fish encouraged hunters to have their deer tested for CWD. Regional offices and Game and Fish wardens and biologists can help hunters submit a sample for testing.
Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner Mike Schmid asked about regulations for hunters in the Casper/Wheatland area, where CWD is more common.
“The commission there has regulations for carcass transport to an approved landfill,” Talbot said. “Bucks do have a higher concentration of CWD than does, so that also presents a complicated social issue in discussing with hunters.”
“There are essentially four options for disposal,” Talbot continued. “Composting, which greatly reduces the prions, incineration, chemical digestion and disposal in a landfill.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Harmon asked Talbot if Game and Fish had any plans as an agency to help counties implement incineration.
“We’re not at that point yet,” Talbot said. “Incineration may not even be ideal because of air emissions and public complaints about odor.”
Commissioner King reminded the commission and the audience about the need to take care of our state.
“We will draw from every department we possibly can to find a solution,” King said. “We will also work with our neighbors, because that’s just what you do.”
Representatives from Teton County also spoke at the meeting. Teton County is facing a landfill crisis that would only worsen if CWD were confirmed in the county.
Heather Overholser — Superintendent of Teton County Solid Waste and Recycling — said that the Teton County landfill closed in 1989 and became a transfer station.
“If CWD is confirmed in Teton County, we will no longer be able to take our carcasses to Bonneville County, Idaho, where our waste is currently transferred,” Overholser said. “We may need to look to surrounding counties for a short-term solution. We want to work with the National Elk Refuge and Game and Fish to try for solutions.”
“Incineration could be our best option,” Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “We really want a long-term solution. We would need to work with other communities to offer a relief valve in the interim if CWD is confirmed in our county.”
Overholser said she has done extensive research on incineration that could help stop the spread of CWD.
“What we’re looking at is not a burn box run by diesel that emits a huge cloud of black smoke, Overholser said. “What we’re talking about is an incinerator with an afterburner. Yes, it’s expensive, but there are almost no emissions and it can be run on natural gas with almost no odor.”
“We’re not going to reach a solution here today, but we need to know our options,” King said. “I believe regionalization is an issue that we can look at to help with our solutions.”
King also said he and the commission did not want to “accept the status quo” on this issue, but continue to look for long-term solutions.
“It is also a money issue for the counties, and these are some expensive options,” Connelly said.
To learn more about CWD, visit the Wyoming Game and Fish website at wgfd.wyo.gov.