The problem of Chronic Wasting Disease is not going away, especially among the elk herd within Custer State Park.

On the agenda at the next South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks commissioner's meeting in Brookings Nov. 2-3 is a proposal that would increase the number of anterless licenses available for four additional nine-day special hunting sessions, beginning in December, from 20 to 60.

"Probably the biggest driver behind it is our concern of the potential spread of Chronic Wasting Disease," GF&P regional terrestrial resources supervisor John Kanta said.

CWD attacks the brain in deer and elk and is always fatal.

There have already been two of these special hunting seasons, one that went from Oct. 7-15 and one that is currently going on and will run until Sunday.

The proposed additional dates would be Dec. 2-10, 16-24, Dec. 30-Jan. 7 and Jan. 13-21.

The reason for the proposed increase in licenses and special hunting dates in CWD. During the 2016 season, of elk harvested that were sent in by hunters for testing, 17 percent showed signs of the disease.

Kanta said most of the literature about the disease states that once a herd hits 13 percent prevalence population decline becomes a possibility.  

"We want to contain this," he said. "We don’t want to see it spread anywhere else best way to do that is reduce population densities."

Another factor in wanting to reduce the density in CSP is the park's close proximity to Wind Cave National Park. Last year 260 elk were removed from the park where the disease was found in 14 percent of the elk.

Although there is a high and well-built fence surrounding WCNP, the disease is easily transmittable through contact that could be found at the fence.

The reason for the nine-day seasons and the number of increased licenses according to Kanta is that while GF&P wants to decrease population density, they do not want elk to spread the disease to other parts of the area.

"A lot of it had to do with reducing population densities as quick as we possibly can but we don’t want to spread CWD, so we didn’t want to blow elk out of the park with hunter density," he said. "It's about getting hunters in and harvesting elk without pushing them out of area."

The length of the season is designed to give hunters two weekends to hunt, while giving the population time to recoup before sending a new group of hunters into the area.

The first case of CWD in CSP was discovered in 2005, and the first case in WCNP in 2001. Kanta said he believes GF&P is doing the best it can to protect the herd while making sure the disease doesn't travel to areas outside the park.

"I think we’re doing as much as we can in the situation that we’re in. By-and-large, it doesn’t seem to be a big issue for our hunters," he said. "If the hunters aren’t concerned then they aren’t as apt to turn in samples and help us test."

He said that in its testing of last year's harvest GF&P was able to test only 18 elk, which he admitted was a small sample size. He cited the park's proximity to WCNP and the 260 elk taken from there as further reason GF&P believes this is the right course of action for managing the disease within the herd.

"It's not causing immediate declines in population, it's slow and over time, so its hard for people to realize the impact it can have over time," he said. "What's nice about what we’re doing is we're utilizing hunters to reduce the population."

Although the public comment portion of the process hasn't been completed yet, division of wildlife deputy director Tom Kirschenmann said it is the fact that GF&P is asking more hunters that makes him think the community could support the proposal.

"In general there’s typically support of elk management activities and opportunities," he said. "There has been a lot of discussion around this, I believe most hunters understand and some will look at this as additional hunting opportunity."

Kirchenmann added that he had no leaning about which way the commission would vote on the proposal or whether or not they'd make changes at the meeting.

"Overall we've had good discussions with the commission on the topic," he said. "We haven’t seen public comment, but we’ve had a lot of good discussion about management in the park and how CWD plays into the process."

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