The National Elk Refuge has been given a diesel-fired crematorium in which it plans to burn the carcasses of elk that may be infected with a chronic debilitating disease.
Officials at the US Fish and Wildlife Service reservation in Jackson have applied for a permit from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to operate the “mobile ungulate crematorium.”
The state agency regulates emissions from engines used in the crematorium and is investigating the application.
The crematorium recently arrived on the 24,700-acre reserve on a trailer. It will be installed in a maintenance facility on the north side of the shelter, a location generally off-limits to the public.
The DEQ permit would allow emissions from the crematorium chimney, which are not expected to contain any of the CWD infective agents — malformed proteins called prions. Incineration is one of the few known methods of eliminating the prions, which can otherwise remain in the environment, including in plants and soil, for years. CWD is a nervous system disorder similar to mad cow disease that wilts animals before they inevitably die. Infected animals secrete the misshapen proteins through body fluids, feces and decomposing tissue.
Infected moose usually show no symptoms during the first year of infection and can spread prions during that time. They usually die within two years of infection, according to refugee documents.
Any infection would threaten the sanctuary and the approximately 11,000 elk in the Jackson Elk Herd, some of which live on the reserve during the winter.
“Based on the contract standards, it’s not possible for those prions to take to the skies,” said Eric Cole, senior wildlife biologist at the sanctuary. No smoke will be visible from the chimney of the incinerator, according to the request of the shelter to the DEQ.
The crematorium will reduce a carcass weight by 95% and the ashes “will be sterile and biologically inert,” the DEQ filing states.
“Carcass combustion is part of the approved CWD response strategy,” signed in April 2021, Cole said. “Any moose showing CWD symptoms will be euthanized, sampled, and the carcass will be incinerated.”
A hunter in Grand Teton National Park’s moose reduction program in 2020 killed a cowland just north of the refuge that tested positive for CWD. With that, the Jackson Elk Herd was officially considered infected.
Although CWD has not been detected at the refuge itself, conservationists fear it will arrive there and spread among animals concentrated on supplemental feed distributed during the winter.
“Somewhat surprisingly,” there have been no discoveries of CWD-infected moose in the Jackson herd since those in 2020, Cole said.
“Most likely, CWD is only at trace levels within the limits of the Jackson Elk Herd,” he said. That’s based on a robust sampling of moose that die in the shelter over winter, moose killed by hunters in the shelter, moose that are killed or die in Grand Teton National Park, and hunter-killed moose sampled by Wyoming Game and Fish Department in other areas of the herd’s habitat. About 7,000 moose spend the winter at the refuge, while the rest of the 11,000-strong herd winters on a few Wyoming Game and Fish feeding grounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage or on other lands, mostly north of Jackson .
Each year, the agencies — Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Game and Fish Department — collect between 300-400 lymph node samples from dead moose for analysis. That collection allows biologists to assume with 95% certainty that the infection rate in the herd fluctuates at or below 1%, Cole said.
Under the CWD strategy, refugee workers will kill moose that appear to be infected and die from CWD. Symptoms include lethargy, excessive salivation, a drooping head, and other similar signs of a deteriorating central nervous system.
There is no practical way to test a live moose for CWD.
“Based on past experience, it is unlikely that a moose showing CWD symptoms will survive for long,” Cole wrote in an email. “Euthanizing animals showing CWD symptoms is an important way to reduce disease transmission to other animals and help ensure the health of the Jackson Elk herd.”
“This one [euthanasia and incineration] is probably one of the most effective ways we can do that,” he said of preserving herd health. “This is the strategy we are committed to.”
Refugee workers will burn any suspected carcasses, he said, without waiting for the results of CWD tests, which could take weeks to receive.
Moose that die for reasons other than suspected CWD — being killed by predators, for example — will be left for a period of time for scavengers to exploit. “After they are captured, the remaining bones are collected and burned,” Cole said.
The annual collection of elk antlers by Boy Scouts would not be affected unless science emerges showing that antlers can transmit the disease, said Elk Refuge Manager Frank Durbian.
WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on people, places, and policies in Wyoming. This story has been edited for space. The full story can be found in its entirety at wyofile.com.