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Wildlife Advocates: Wolves Could Help Stave Off Disease in Elk, Deer

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The first case of chronic wasting disease in elk reported by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has reopened debate on current wildlife management programs.

Kristin Combs, executive director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said she hopes the public will weigh in on the agency's assessment of winter elk feed grounds, seen as potential super-spreader sites.

She added keeping wolf populations at bare minimums is counter-productive because the apex predators are a free source of disease control if allowed to do their job.

"Wolves are able to take out these sick and weak animals long before humans can see symptoms," Combs explained. "And yet we are still killing off wolves when they could be a big solution."

Combs noted out of a total wolf population of 300 in Wyoming, 54 were killed this year in trophy hunting season, and up to 20 were killed in livestock conflicts.

Wyoming has a long tradition of eradicating wolves. Hunters say they don't want wolves taking elk and other game, and ranchers don't want wolves eating into their bottom lines.

Combs contended while loss of livestock can be significant for individual ranchers, there are proven ways to prevent encounters with wolves. She argued there is no evidence wolves are serious competition for hunters, pointing to biologist reports that wolves in Yellowstone, where hunting is not allowed, have kept elk herds healthy.

"Wolves are not going to be a significant factor in reducing the populations," Combs asserted. "Since wolves have been reintroduced, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have had bumper hunting years, and their populations are still well above objectives."

Combs emphasized the first case of chronic wasting disease in elk should prompt a swift phase-out of winter feed grounds, where large numbers of elk congregate for months in close quarters.

Comments on the future of Game and Fish's 22 winter sites can be added at the agency's website, wgfd.wyo.gov through Jan. 8.