Elk Feedgrounds Could Increase CWD Risk

Elk winter feedgrounds could increase the risk of disease, such as brucellosis that can spread to cattle, due to the concentration of animals and unnaturally large elk populations. ( USDA )

Winter feeding in wild elk herds in Wyoming generally provides economic benefits to the state, but if chronic wasting disease (CWD) enters the picture, those benefits could dry up, according to a University of Wyoming study.

Elk feeding began in Wyoming over a century ago, as a means of helping herds in the Yellowstone area survive unusually harsh winters.  Over time, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department established elk feedgrounds in strategic areas, with several objectives. Feeding elk during the winter helps maintain a large population, which generates revenue through hunting and tourism. Feeding in remote areas also keeps elk herds from decimating livestock forage on private lands and reduces their co-mingling with cattle herds.

On the other hand, opponents believe the feedgrounds increase the risk of disease, such as brucellosis that can spread to cattle, due to the concentration of animals and unnaturally large elk populations. Wyoming has shifted feeding practices to distribute herds more widely and minimize risk of disease exposure. 

The potential for CWD entering those elk herds complicates the issue further. University of Wyoming economics PhD candidate Matthew Maloney, under direction of economics professor David Aadland, conducted a study demonstrating how feedgrounds increase the risk of exposure to CWD and how the disease could then cause economic losses far in excess of feeding benefits. His report, titled “Two Applications of Interdisciplinary Modeling in Environmental Economics,” is available online.

Economic impacts outlined in the study focus on direct costs of CWD spreading among elk herds – death loss and control costs. While CWD has never been shown to naturally infect species outside of cervids such as deer, elk and moose, its similarity to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) creates ongoing concern that it could affect cattle.

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