Wyoming senator introduces bill to study chronic wasting disease, help ranchers stop predators

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CASPER, Wyo. — U.S. Sen. John Barrasso introduced an overarching conservation bill this week intended to address a number of issues facing Wyoming and the West, with provisions taking on the emerging threat of chronic wasting disease, invasive species and the loss of livestock to predators.

If passed, the legislation — titled the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act — would have significant benefits for Wyoming, authorizing the study of chronic wasting disease’s spread across the U.S. as well as outlining provisions to compensate ranchers for the stock they’ve lost, among other provisions.

The bill passed out of Barrasso’s Committee on Environment and Public Works on Tuesday with significant support from groups including the National Wildlife Foundation, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the association, specifically praised new financial protections for ranchers — who are typically compensated for their losses by a program run by the state of Wyoming — as well as a provision allowing the issuance of special “depredation permits” to ranchers, letting them take out predators like black vultures or common ravens during calving or lambing season.

The scary science behind chronic wasting disease

The bill would also release funds for livestock producers to carry out a number of non-lethal activities intended to reduce livestock loss to species protected by federal law, a significant — albeit controversial — conversation in states like Wyoming.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed approximately 4,360 cattle had been killed by wolves — a protected species — in the northern Rocky Mountains alone, though those numbers have been largely contested. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only verified 161 of those losses, and USDA data itself shows that predation by protected species is a relatively minor driver of livestock losses.

However, interactions between protected species and livestock have increased significantly over the last several years and, in places like Powell, have actually created a heightened level of risk for doing business due to predator threats.

The bill reauthorizes a number of federal conservation programs currently overseen by the federal government, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Establishment Act, and the Chesapeake Bay Program. It would also increase cooperation between states and agencies in Washington on initiatives like the conservation of fish habitat, a key provision for groups like the American Sportfishing Association.

Most significantly, the bill would create a task force to develop an interstate action plan for states to tackle the rising threat of chronic wasting disease, which has spread to more than half of the states in the country, and would direct the National Academy of Sciences to research how the disease is transmitted.

“This task force will bring states, relevant federal agencies, scientists, managers and farmers to the table,” Barrasso said Tuesday. “Together they can better coordinate prevention and control efforts and target future research to address unanswered questions.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department founded a task force of its own earlier this year specifically focused on the spread of the disease within Wyoming’s borders.

A final plan stemming from those efforts is expected to be released in March, according to a presentation given to legislators by Game and Fish officials this summer.

“This is a national problem that requires the collective thought, wisdom and experience of members of the government, academics, non-governmental organizations and elected leaders,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik, who testified on the impacts of chronic wasting disease before members of Congress earlier this month. “On behalf of the wildlife and citizens of Wyoming, I really appreciate Senator Barrasso’s leadership on wildlife related issues. Many of the provisions in this bill provide infra-structure to facilitate enhanced partnership between state and federal wildlife and land managers.”

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