Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Two years is too long to wait to start ramping down a large Wyoming winter elk feeding program, now that chronic wasting disease is close to Yellowstone National Park, activists said in a federal lawsuit filed this week.
The National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole and other state-run elk feeding areas are endangering the animals by congregating them in large herds, conservationists said in the suit filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The suit was filed in the Washington, D.C., District Court by Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feedlot plan that would gradually delay feeding the elk over several years, until they became accustomed to foraging elsewhere, is scheduled to go into effect in two years. The suit alleges that the delay would not uphold the Fish and Wildlife Service's duty to protect the animals on the refuge.
Chronic wasting disease, also called zombie deer disease, has spread through elk, deer and moose populations in 26 states. It could be too late to save elk from the disease, wildlife experts fear.
The highly contagious and fatal disease with no cure has marched steadily from southeast Wyoming, where it first appeared in the 1960s, toward the state's northwest corner, said Bozeman, Mont.-based Timothy Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the suit.
20,000 elk fed
At the winter feed grounds, 20,000 elk eat hay and alfalfa pellets provided by federal rangers and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, creating a perfect vector for spread of the disease, Preso said.
"Nothing is shielding the elk from the worst consequences of what [wildlife managers are] doing at this point," he said.
Already wildlife experts fear that the disease is at hand in northwest Wyoming. An infected mule deer was found at the wildlife refuge last summer.
"Chronic wasting disease has already arrived in the Yellowstone ecosystem," Preso said.
Private ranchers started the feeding program in the early 1900s. Animals winter in close quarters in the national refuge and 22 other feedlots managed by the state wildlife agency.
"The elk essentially spend the entire winter walking around in their feces and urine in just the same way cattle do at a feedlot," Jonathan Ratner, regional director for Western Watersheds Project, said in November. Wyoming is the only state that feeds herds of wild elk in the winter.
The National Elk Refuge is the largest ungulate feeding program of any federal wildlife refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire confirmed. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Similar to mad cow
Chronic wasting disease is a form of spongiform encephalopathy, similar to mad cow disease and scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Misshapen proteins, called prions, build up in the spine and brain, causing brain damage and death.
While an infected deer, elk or cervid appears healthy for two years, the animal eventually will stop eating and become confused, stumbling and drooling with a droopy head and ears.
The disease has not jumped the species barrier from deer to cattle or from deer to humans. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that humans not eat venison from a diseased animal.
Prions from infected animals cannot be destroyed with heat and can remain on landscape for years, so feeding grounds could become "de facto biological 'Superfund' sites," retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bruce Smith said last year.
Conservationists believe there is sufficient forage around Jackson Hole for elk to feed without a handout over the winter.
But state wildlife officials worry the animals would become confused and starve if sites were shut down.
Brian Nesvik, director of Wyoming Game and Fish, said last year that 60 to 80 percent of Wyoming's elk population could be reduced if the state stopped feed ground operations. The state wildlife agency does not want to risk losing business from Wyoming's $300 million elk hunting and outfitting industry.
Hunting could end
But elk hunting could cease if the Yellowstone ecosystem herds are decimated by chronic wasting disease.
"If we shut down the feedlots, there might be fewer elk on the refuge over the winter. But if we keep going like we're going, it will destroy the great fall tradition of family elk hunt," Earthjustice's Preso said.
He added: "What will happen to elk hunting if you have a looming fear you'll pick up a brain-deteriorating disease eating the meat of the elk you just shot?"