Eventually fatal and with no known treatment options, chronic wasting disease is especially concerning because it also contaminates the soil, where it is endemic. Although originally limited to north-central Colorado and southeast Wyoming, recent outbreaks in other states and expansion in Wyoming have heightened concern about the disease's spread because it could be a significant mortality factor for elk.
CWD is infectious and contagious. The disease is transmitted by animal-to-animal contact or through contact with a contaminated environment, but the exact mode of transmission is unknown. The dynamics of this disease in elk and deer populations are still poorly understood. Transmission may be influenced by animal numbers, the time infected animals occupy a given space, and the amount of space occupied by infected animals. It may also be related to the density of susceptible hosts. The density of animal populations would likely play a role through faster and greater seeding of the environment with the prion agent and more animal-to-animal contact.
Chronic wasting disease has not been documented in elk wintering on the refuge, but the spread of chronic wasting disease to the Jackson elk herd is possible. If chronic wasting disease does become present in the herd, environmental contamination will become a major concern due to the disease's ability to persist in the environment for a long period of time, even after intensive efforts to eradicate it.
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Elk aren't the only species of wildlife you may see on the National Elk Refuge.