Wasting Away

With the naked eye, it’s impossible to discern early signs of chronic wasting disease in elk. For years after they become infected, these monumental animals go about their lives — ambling into the high country in summer and back down to the valleys in winter, mating in fall and calving in spring. But then a few weeks before they die, they become thin, and their ribs and hipbones protrude. They salivate, droop their ears and don’t run away from humans as healthy elk would.

“They get a look on their faces that’s like the lights are on but nobody’s home,” said Margaret Wild, the former chief wildlife veterinarian for the Wildlife Health Branch of the National Park Service. “It’s very sad for the individual animal, but what makes me more sad is that this is happening time and time again. We’re not going to have as many elk out there and calves being born, and this population may not be sustainable in the long term.”

Elk pick up this degenerative disorder, in which an abnormal protein infects an animal’s nervous system and slowly destroys the brain, from blood, saliva, urine and even the soil, where the proteins remain viable for years. The illness, similar to mad cow and scrapie, is easily transmissible between animals, there is no treatment or cure, and it is always fatal.

Researchers first detected CWD in 1967, but it remained for years in a small geographic area spanning southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. Then in the 2000s, it appeared to spread — or at least it was detected more often — popping up in deer, elk and moose in new regions. Now, it has emerged in 25 states, Alberta, Saskatchewan and South Korea. In the last couple of years, it appeared in Europe for the first time — it’s uncertain how — in moose, deer and wild reindeer.

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