Barrasso’s CWD task force bill clears hurdle

JACKSON — There were no congressional naysayers Tuesday to a bill that would create a $7.4 million pot to fund research and unite state agencies around the goal of combating chronic wasting disease.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, who spearheaded the legislation, became familiar with chronic wasting disease, or CWD, when it first popped up in the wild in his home state of Wyoming back in 1985. Nearly 35 years later, too little is known about the lethal, transmissible and degenerative sickness, which infects cervid species including elk, deer and moose, the Republican senator said.

“We still don’t know how it’s transmitted, and we don’t know what the heck is going on here,” Barrasso told the News&Guide in an interview. “Even though the states are working on different components of it, to me we need to have a national effort.”

Funding for Barrasso’s CWD task force was bundled with other natural resources legislative pieces that make up America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, co-sponsored by Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. On Tuesday morning the bill cleared the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in a 21-0 vote. It heads next to the floor of the U.S. Senate.

As written, the act directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the CWD task force. Membership would be composed of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, two U.S. Department of Agriculture employees and up to two members from each of the 26 states where CWD has been confirmed to date.

The task force’s mission would be to collaborate with foreign governments and develop recommendations for best practices. An interstate action plan would be developed. A cooperative agreement for states to commit funds to implement the best practices would be hashed out, with federal government providing a 1-to-1 annual match up to $5 million until 2025.

The Conservation Enhancement Act also charges the National Academy of Sciences with leading an interagency study investigating the transmission of CWD in cervids. The Geological Survey and Department of Agriculture would each receive a $1.2 million shot of funding to carry it out.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik testified in support of the task force in early December. Chronic wasting disease, he pointed out, is already becoming a drain on state wildlife managers’ pocketbooks around the country. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimates states will spend $84 million on testing and surveillance over the next five years. Moreover, it threatens the deer, elk and moose populations they’re charged with managing.

“Prior to research from the past 5 to 10 years, most wildlife managers and members of the public recognized the disease, but took the view that impacts were minimal,” Nesvik testified. “We now know that with high prevalence levels the disease can limit and even reduce the health and viability of certain wildlife populations.”

Over its three-plus decades of spread in Wyoming, CWD has been found in 84% of the state’s mule deer herds and 25% of its elk herds. It officially reached Jackson Hole last fall. Prevalence rates vary widely, but can exceed 40% in buck deer in some locales.

Nearly a dozen so other natural resource issues are also addressed in the 110-page Conservation Enhancement Act. None of the legislative language proved controversial enough to garner any no votes, even on a committee almost evenly split with 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans.

The bill also would reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Act and several federal Chesapeake Bay programs until 2025. There’s aspirational language encouraging partnerships among public agencies for promoting fish conservation. One component establishes a grant program to compensate states and tribes for livestock killed by federally protected species like wolves and grizzly bears. Another provision establishes a “Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize” for technological innovation to non-lethally reduce human-predator conflict. Funding for combating invasive species is also allocated.

Lastly, the act authorizes the U.S. secretary of the interior to issue ranchers lethal permits for black vultures and common ravens — species normally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The permits could be used only during calving or lambing season and only by livestock producers who experienced losses the year before, according to the bill.

“We’ve heard from Wyoming ranchers, in eastern Wyoming, and have had staff people out there to see what’s going on,” Barrasso said. “Again, this is a bipartisan, accepted issue.”