The Next Big Wildlife Management Issue for Parks?

White-tailed deer.

A healthy white-tailed deer. NPS Photo.

A new challenge facing national park wildlife managers sounds like it's taken from a Hollywood medical thriller. Unfortunately, it's fact—not fiction—and it has the potential to become a major problem in the years ahead.

Script writers would have a hard time coming up with a more challenging scenario for wildlife biologists than a disease which is slowly spreading across the country. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, scientists currently have a lot more questions than answers about the malady. Thus far, it's known to infect mule deer, white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer, elk and moose.

The origin of the disease is still a mystery, along with the mode of transmission and incubation period. From that point, things get even more complicated. Infected animals appear robust and healthy in the early stages of the disease, and it may take several years before they show clinical signs.

There are no symptoms specific to the malady, which means there's no accurate way to determine if animals which appear to be unhealthy are suffering from this problem. The only positive means of confirming a diagnosis is to examine brain tissues from an animal for distinctive brain lesions.

There is no known treatment—and the prognosis is fatal. It's not hard to see why wildlife biologists and managers are concerned.

This mysterious culprit is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), and it is known to occur in the wild in 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces: Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, and West Virginia, plus Saskatchewan and Alberta. Captive herds in several other states have also been infected.

Now for some possible good news. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported" and domestic livestock have thus far not been infected.

CWD belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Within this family of diseases, there are several that affect domestic animals, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as "mad cow disease"). Though many observers try to compare CWD with "mad cow disease," they are distinctly different.

As the outbreak spreads, national park service sites in the affected areas will come under pressure to take action, since many of those sites contain large populations of deer, elk and/or moose. State wildlife officials, hunters and local farmers and ranchers will likely be concerned that park wildlife contribute to the spread of the disease, while animal activists can be expected to decry any steps that involve killing of wildlife.

It's a classic no-win situation for park managers, but they are to be commended for trying to "get ahead of the curve" by doing some advance planning. Here's a summary of the situation and what's happening in the near future in the northeastern part of the country:

Parks in the Northeast Region need to be ready to respond to the possibility that state wildlife agencies may propose a large-scale deer population reduction to control chronic wasting disease (CWD) where that action includes a national park unit. Deer reduction is a "significant action" according to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This means that before parks can take such an action, NEPA procedures must be followed. These include preparing an environmental assessment and conducting public hearings.

Two public meetings, identical in format, will be held to present the alternatives to the public and provide a forum for receiving public input. The first meeting will be held on Wednesday, December 3, 2008, in the Visitor Center at Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland, off MD Route 65, 10 miles south of I-70 (Exit 29) and 1 mile north of Sharpsburg.

The second meeting will be held on Thursday, December 4, 2008, in the Gambrill House at Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland, off MD Route 355, three miles south of the City of Frederick. The Gambrill House is located at 4801 Urbana Pike. Both meetings will begin at 6:00 p.m. and end at 8:30 p.m. The format will include an initial sign-in and open house, followed by a welcome and presentations, and conclude with an additional open house format.

Antietam and Monacacy have been chosen as the site for these meetings since the disease has been detected within 60 miles of the park units and may threaten those areas in the future.

The plan developed at Antietam National Battlefield will also serve as a template environmental planning document on CWD for other National Park Service units in the eastern United States, so this process has some wide-ranging implications.

If you'd like to voice an opinion and it's not convenient for you to attend one of the above meetings, you can get information on-line about the four proposed alternatives by going to this site and clicking on the link for "CWD Draft Alternatives Newsletter."

Comments will be accepted until December 31, 2008, and you can make them in two ways. To submit comments on-line, go to this site and then click on the "Comment on Document" link near the upper right-hand corner of the screen. You can also submit written comment by mail to the following address:

National Park Service
Environmental Quality Division
RE: CWD Detection & Initial Response Plan/EA
P.O. Box 25287
Denver, CO 80225

This could prove to be a very important issue in coming years, and here's your chance to voice an informed opinion. You'll find additional information about CWD at a NPS website as well as sites for the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the USDA.