Saturday, July 22, 2017

Gazette opinion: Montana’s Crazy land controversy

GAZETTE OPINION

Gazette opinion: Montana’s Crazy land controversy


The Crazy Mountains are seen at the top of this aerial photo.
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff
The Crazy Mountains soar out of the prairie, suggesting peace and tranquility in this oasis of forest and streams. The idyllic landscape belies longstanding friction over public access to National Forest interspersed with private land.
The latest round centers on the removal of District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz from field work in the Crazies to an office job pending an internal investigation. That action came in response to pressure from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The senator and secretary reacted to complaints about Sienkiewicz from ranchers and outfitters.
Montana hunters and public access advocates have stepped up to defend Sienkiewicz, saying he was following long-established Forest Service policy.
The simmering controversy heated up last fall when Bozeman hunter Rob Gregoire was cited by a Sweet Grass County deputy sheriff for trespassing on a trail that he and Sienkiewicz believe to be open to the public by “prescriptive easement,” because it has historically been used by the public to access otherwise inaccessible public land.
Landowners Lee and Barbara Langhus disagree and made the trespass complaint. There is no written easement allowing public access across their land, although the trail has long been marked on Forest Service maps and cited in the Gallatin Forest Travel Plan.
The Crazy Mountains contain more than 8,000 acres of National Forest that the public has no way of accessing. That forest land is surrounded by private holdings. The Crazies also contain a hunting district, much of which is inaccessible to the public, with 2,000 elk — twice the district’s maximum target as determined by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
That’s the hunting district that Gregoire was trying to reach. The oversupply of elk feast on some neighbors’ hay supplies, while others profit from exclusive, limited hunts.
Land ownership in the Crazies is a checkerboard pattern of public and private sections that dates to the 1860s when the U.S. government gave Northern Pacific Railroad 17 million acres of the Montana Territory up to 80 miles from the rail line. More frequent confrontations are cropping up on land that has recently changed ownership with new owners who want their private property off-limits to the public. In other cases, long-time owners may have a beef with Forest Service personnel or bad experiences with the public.
Solutions won’t be easy, but resolution efforts need to start now. There’s only one remaining public access to the entire 35-mile-long eastern flank of the Crazies.
From facts reported previously in The Gazette, it appears that Sienkiewicz is being penalized for doing his job. Government employees deserve to know that their supervisors — even the secretary of the department — will stand up for them when they are serving the public.
However, the Forest Service and local landowners have some fence mending to do. Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson should have authority to devise better ways to build trust between local landowners and Forest Service personnel in the field. The local forest working group should actively engage citizens with differing perspectives.
In the long run, landowners, hunters, hikers and other public land users need clarification on access issues. Possible remedies include:
  • Montana legislative action to provide public access while protecting private property rights.
  • Litigation that would result in a Montana Supreme Court ruling.
  • Land swaps to consolidate key public and private holdings.
It’s not realistic to believe that everyone interested in the Crazies will just sit down and start getting along. But we urge the Forest Service to start a conversation with landowners and the general public.
Daines and Perdue must stop micromanaging staff in the Gallatin Forest. Daines should listen to all his constituents, relay their concerns and then let land management professionals do their jobs.
Perdue should see that decision making about forest land is led by department professionals in Montana — not from his Washington, D.C., office.

EMWH




July 19, 2017

"We can and should have an abundance of trails for walking, cycling, and horseback riding... 
In the back country we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of America, 
and to make full use of right-of-way and other public paths."
~ 
President Lyndon B. Johnson


Newsletter Social Media link

The Face of Things To Come... If We Don't Mobilize To Stop It

I woke up to poison ivy this morning. I have a great poison ivy soap that neutralizes the urishiol, so this will pass quickly. But how I got poison ivy is not so easily remedied. I got it yesterday, documenting one of our blocked FS Trails, #267 - the Porcupine Trail, in the NW Crazy Mountains.

This morning I not only woke up to short term poison ivy, I woke to another PERC article equating our historical roads and trails access to trespassing, and their privatizing perspective of those trails with Uber or Airbnb, that the public should pay landowners for access we already have to our public lands, like a toll road. On the 14th, there was a PERC article in Colorado on this issue. I'm starting to get a Billy Goat Gruff vs. the PERC Troll editorial cartoon in my head, which is quite appropos if you understand that the Crazy Mountains are home to one of the largest Mountain Goat populations in Montana.

So here we were, Brad and I, from the trailhead of the FS Porcupine Trail #267 to the locked gate circled in red.



Brad Wilson, who was born and raised in the area, was my guide. His grandfather was one of the original landowners around the Shields area. Brad worked for Park County Roads division for about 8 years, then was a Deputy Sheriff for another 8 years. He understands access issues intimately. Brad recently began the Friends of the Crazy Mountains group to address access issues on the west side of the Crazies. (If anyone wants to join or contribute to the immediate issue at hand, perhaps trail maintenance, contact Brad Wilson, P.O. Box 77, Wilsall, MT, 59086). I was given an honorary Friends of the Crazy Mountains camo hat. ;)

So Brad takes me on this trail where I am documenting with video, photos and gps for the big interactive Crazy Mountain map soon to go up. I documented blaze trees, which help to let the public know where the trail is, especially if you don't have gps. Then we get to the boundary line of a property owner, Zimmerman, who has a gate blocking this historic trail that goes through that property, connects to the main Porcupine Lowline Trail #195, which runs through mostly FS public land heading south. Zimmerman is one of the landowners which outfits and grazes, who signed the letters that resulted in the removal of Alex Sienkiewicz as the Yellowstone District Ranger, reaching out to Senator Daines up to newly sworn in Ag Sec. Sonny Perdue.





If you were not intimately familiar with this trail, you would probably be deterred by this lock and gate. 2 years ago Dale had seen a Private Property, No Forest Service Access, No Trespassing sign at that gate, which he told others about; it was not there now, but you could see the remnants of FS signs on the wooden posts. We were not deterred, we passed the gate, followed the trail on my highly accurate gps and I photographed the blaze trees along the way, until we got to the meadow clearing. We then returned to the FS public lands. 

On the way back down the trail, Dale spotted some white in the brush. Thinking it was a Forest Service sign that had been removed, he went down to get it. It tuned out to be the metal Private Property sign that used to be at the gate. 



Get a good hard look at these pictures. 

This could be you trying to access our Public Lands on our historic public access trails. This could be the face of all historic unperfected roads and trails on our public lands to come.

Please contact the officials involved, contact information below.

I am including information for submitting Letters To the Editor or if you are part of an organization, a hunting/angling or other recreation group, an Opinion Editorial to the newspapers. We need to get the word out, THIS IS NOT JUST ABOUT THE CRAZY MOUNTAINS OR ALEX SIENKIWICZ. This is about all our unperfected federal roads and trails and our federal employees that follow policy, do their job, that could be targeted by any landowner utilizing their political connections. 

To submit Letter To the Editor (LTE) or Opinion Editorial (Oped), most papers have the same policy: Letters have a word limit or fewer, and MUST include your real name, city of residence and daytime phone number (they call to confirm that you are who you are and you actually sent in the LTE. In the Subject Line begin with LTE or Oped, then your title. Some papers only publish letters from within their primary readership. Opinion Editorials (Oped) from groups/organizations, established writers, have higher word limits and may request a picture.


Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20250 (202) 720-2791

Forest Service Chief, Thomas Tidwell,  ttidwell@fs.fed.us   (202) 205-8439

Region 1, Regional Forester Leann Marten,  lmarten@fs.fed.us   (406) 329-3315

Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson,  mcerickson@fs.fed.us  (406) 587-6949

Senator Steve Daines, senator@daines.senate.gov   (202) 224-2651

Even though Sen. Tester was not evident in the letters, please contact him as well.
Sen. Jon Tester,  senator@tester.senate.gov   (202) 224-2644 
Representative Greg Gianforte, 1419 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515 (202) 225-3211
greg.gianforte@mail.house.gov  (you can try this, this is the one his office gave me, but mine keep coming back unable to deliver. For a technology guy, you would think he would have a functioning email address)

Click to be a Contributor or Subscriber to 
Enhancing Montana's Wildlife & Habitat



Thank you,
Kathryn QannaYahu
406-579-7748
www.EMWH.org
Bozeman, MT

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Missoulian--Forest dis-Service in the Crazy Mountain case

Guest column

Forest dis-Service in the Crazy Mountain case

  • Updated

When Alex Sienkiewicz and his wife Holly arrived in Livingston in 2011, they felt enthusiastic about raising their children in a small Montana town. After years of higher education, Sienkiewicz also felt excited about assuming his duties as District Ranger in the Forest Service and getting out into the field where he’d always longed to be. Then on June 16, 2017, Regional Forest Service Supervisor Mary Erickson informed him that he was being reassigned, and that he faced an internal misconduct investigation. The reason? He’d been doing his job.
Conflicts over public access to Gallatin National Forest land in the Crazy Mountains had been simmering for years. The FS had built, maintained, and utilized trails there for decades, and documents dating back to 1930 and beyond established that they were public. Erickson herself expressed that position in a 2015 letter to Sen. Steve Daines: “The Forest Service maintains that it owns unperfected prescriptive rights on this trail system.” Alerted by complaints about blocked trails and no-trespassing signs from outdoor recreationists, Sienkiewicz began to take this policy seriously.
A handful of ranchers whose land some of these trails crossed objected, as they had been doing for years. With their ire focused on Sienkiewicz, they did what influential Americans have always done and took their complaints to Washington. Highly critical letters went out to Sen. Daines and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue just prior to Sienkiewicz’s reassignment. There was no question about the reason for that reassignment, about which Supervisor Erickson commented: “…it relates to on-going issues around access in the Crazy Mountains and allegations from landowners about how Alex has navigated some of these disputes.”
Alex Sienkiewicz understands the value of public lands to the people of Montana and the importance of access to those lands. Acting in accordance with established Forest Service policy, he defended those rights only to be blind-sided by Washington politicians, one of whom we Montanans elected ourselves. Even more disturbingly, he was undercut by the agency that is supposed to be safeguarding those rights, all because he was doing what agency policy said he was supposed to do.
Consider the implications of the message sent by Daines and Purdue: Federal employees who upset influential constituents are at risk even when operating within the parameters established by their own agencies. Montanans of all political affiliations should find this chilling.
It’s time to reinstate Alex Sienkiewicz to the position he came to Montana to perform, on behalf of all of us who depend on public lands as a source of recreation, opportunity, and renewal. And it’s time for the Forest Service to work for the American people, encourage public access to public land, and defend its own employees who are doing the same.
A longtime resident of central Montana, Don Thomas writes about the outdoors for numerous national publications.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Billings Gazette LTE

Daines hands public land to outfitters


Well, Sen. Steve Daines has shown his cards, once again, as a true champion of the welfare outfitters while sticking it to the average hunter. Daines jumped into the case of Livingston District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz, a public servant doing his job for the public to increase access to the Crazy Mountains.
Sienkiewicz’ crime: actually suggesting that people could use a public trail. That didn’t sit well with the landowners/outfitters along the east face of the Crazies, who have locked up the access to the Crazies. Not only do they sell bull elk on their private lands but they block off access to the public lands as well. All this in an area that is way over objective numbers for elk. Some of these same folks come to FWP screaming about too many elk and FWP should do something about it. Talk about special interests screaming about the very problem they’ve helped create — Daines, included!
Daines’ spokesman Jason Thielmann said recently that “darn right” the senator would intervene in the case like this. Seems it’s OK for landowners to bully public officials, but when that public official pushes back on behalf of the public, he’s out of line to Daines.
Just remember that the next time Daines spews his bull about being for public access. A leopard doesn't change its spots!
Carl Brenden
Columbus

Billings Gazette LTE

Daines sells out Montana hunters


It’s pretty clear which side of the public access debate Sen. Steve Daines is on, and it’s not Montana hunters that he cares about. Daines recently jumped into the case of landowners and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Daines recently butted into the case of the Livingston forest ranger who was trying to increase public access to the Crazy Mountains for Montana hunters. The good senator wrote all the way to the top, going to the chief of the Forest Service and even the secretary of Agriculture and the Department of Justice to get the ranger removed and prevent government employees from giving pertinent information. It seems when a U.S. senator talks, people listen, and the ranger was “reassigned” to another position to take the pressure off his effort to increase trail access.
The next time Daines talks about being an advocate for public access, call out his lies. It’s pretty obvious that he’s for big moneyed interests who want to own our public lands, wildlife and water.
Austin Turley
Molt

Montana Sportsmen Alliance Alert: Please send letters in support of "Reinstate Sienkiewicz as Yellowstone district ranger"

Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20250 (202) 720-2791

Forest Service Chief, Thomas Tidwell,  ttidwell@fs.fed.us   (202) 205-8439

Region 1, Regional Forester Leann Marten,  lmarten@fs.fed.us   (406) 329-3315

Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson,  mcerickson@fs.fed.us  (406) 587-6949

Senator Steve Daines, senator@daines.senate.gov   (202) 224-2651

Even though Sen. Tester was not evident in the letters, please contact him as well.
Sen. Jon Tester,  senator@tester.senate.gov   (202) 224-2644 
Representative Greg Gianforte, 1419 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515 (202) 225-3211
greg.gianforte@mail.house.gov  (you can try this, this is the one his office gave me, but mine keep coming back unable to deliver. For a technology guy, you would think he would have a functioning email address)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Reinstate Sienkiewicz as Yellowstone district ranger



Guest column  Missoulian

Reinstate Sienkiewicz as Yellowstone district ranger

It is summertime in Montana. Drive down the road, and you will see Montanans pulling their campers to their favorite campsites, hauling their mountain bikes to their favorite trails, or dragging their boats in search of fish. In the fall, they are likely to be adorned with hunter’s orange in pursuit of Montana’s ample wild game. All of these pursuits rely on public lands and Montanans’ ability to access those lands.
Unfortunately, there are two ways to privatize our public lands – you can sell them, or you can block established, legal public access to those lands. In either case, the public is left on the outside. Lands the public cannot access are, for all practical purposes, private lands, even if the public does derive some income from those lands.
Recently, the U.S. Forest Service removed District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz from his position in the Yellowstone Ranger District pending an internal investigation into his efforts to defend historical Forest Service trails and easements along the Crazy Mountains. Sienkiewicz is a Montanan who is raising his family in Livingston. He is an important part of our community. In addition to being an assault on the public’s right to legally access its lands, this re-assignment threatens the Sienkiewicz’s family’s well-being and instills fear in our public employees who work for all of the public.
From the perspective of many of us, Sienkiewicz is being investigated for doing his job. Don’t we expect our Forest Service employees to manage our lands for multiple use? Don’t we expect the Forest Service to defend our legal public access to those lands? I believe we do.
It is very important to recognize that public lands which do not have public access will not be accessible until the Forest Service, or other public agencies, can negotiate an access with willing surrounding landowners. If negotiations are not successful, or landowners are simply not interested in reaching an access agreement, then the public lands will remain inaccessible. Nobody is trying to force open access to these lands. They, including Sienkiewicz, are simply trying to ensure that historical accesses are protected in light of the attack on public lands by the present administration.
When legal access to public land does exist, I believe Montanans fully expect the Forest Service to defend and maintain that access for Montanans. As with so many of these issues involving political pressure on public agencies, a look behind the curtain reveals a very troubling story. According to media reports, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and Congressman Pete Sessions from Houston, Texas, both contacted Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue regarding Sienkiewicz’s efforts to protect legal, established accesses to landlocked public lands. According to Mary Erickson, forest supervisor, “the reassignment was made after allegations from an assortment of landowners in the Big Timber area were raised to the level of the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, and Sen. Steve Daines.“
If Daines and Perdue support public ownership of public lands, then they should also support access to those public lands. By pressuring the Forest Service to reassign a Forest Service employee who is defending legal public access, Daines and Perdue are betraying their pledge to keep public lands in public hands. I urge Montanans to contact Daines. Let him know that support of public lands includes access to public lands.
I also urge Montanans to contact the Forest Service and ask them to resist political pressure and to reinstate Alex Sienkiewicz as district ranger for the Livingston Ranger District. Intimidation of public employees by powerful interests hurts all of us. In this case, it is hurting a great Montanan and his family as well.
Dan Vermillion, with his two brothers, owns and operates Sweetwater Travel Co. in Livingston. He is an outfitter and has guided on the Yellowstone River since 1990. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Here's Some Good Advocates Doing Something...


"All it takes for evil to succeed
is that good men should look on and do nothing.
"

Public Access Storm Brewing Over the Crazy Mountains
 
The Crazy Mountains in Montana have been a public access hotbed, beginning in 1940. As then Forest Service Supervisor G. E. Martin writes (from my FOIA documents) detailing the variety of uses documented in the historic Crazy Mountains, including mining, timber, grazing, trappers, hunters and recreation, "At no time was travel over the roads and trails restricted until October 1940 when Van Cleve locked the gate during the hunting season. In 1941 this was done again. In 1942 the gate was again locked before the opening of the hunting season and was still locked on April 24, 1943."






I have an ask:

If you have been in the Crazy Mountains...

  • perhaps you received a citation when you were on a FS Trail on their map;
  • perhaps you have been on one of these contested trail and you thankfully did not ask landowner permission or sign in and would like to add your account to the prescriptive easement history;
  • perhaps you would just like to share your story and/or some pictures of what these particular public lands and access mean to you?
If so, please contact Kathryn : kathryn@emwh.org or 406-579-7748




Michael Wright wrote an article in the Bozeman Chronicle this weekend -
Advocates outraged over reassignment of Forest Service ranger 

"Landowner concerns over Sienkiewicz’s work to preserve public access to the Crazy Mountains near Big Timber were brought up to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as recently as late May. Perdue was in Montana for the Montana Ag Summit, and he met with several agriculture groups along with Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association was part of the meeting. Jay Bodner, the natural resources director for the Stockgrowers Association, said each group in the meeting had a variety of concerns, and that public access conflicts in the Crazies was one issue for his group.

'We did have a number of our members kind of concerned with the access issue there in the Crazies,' Bodner said."


I have been busy digging through my FOIA documents, gleaning proof to refute the false allegations against former District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz. I composed and provided this refutation letter, with supporting Refutation Documents to Public Land/Water Access Association. They are sending out their official letter and Refutation Documents to the officials below.
Please consider gleaning information from both, to send in your own comments, including to the other officials, agencies connected and the organizations involved, such as the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, the Stock Growers Association, the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association.

PLWA's Letter Defending Alex Sienkiewicz as Yellowstone District Ranger

Refutation Documents Defending Alex Sienkiewicz as Yellowstone District Ranger

Please note the following additional points:

  • After Lee Gustafson posted the yearly seasonal reminder to FS employees and seasonal help to PLWA's Facebook page, outfitter and Crazy Mountain landowner, Chuck Rein, who is also the Vice-President of the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association, along with MOGA Executive  Mac Minard met with then Yellowstone District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz and Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson on August 17, 2016. Refutation Documentation PDF pgs. 21 & 22 show, "Chuck Rein presented Alex Sienkiewicz and Mary Erickson with a copy of an EMAIL Alex had sent outto staff with cc to Forest Leadership Team." This is the communication that falsely alleged that District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz posted directly to PLWA's Facebook post, which he did not - PLWA member with administrative rights, Lee Gustafson - per the screenshot (pdf page 10) "Both Mac Minnard and Chuck Rein asked Mary Erickson if she agreed with my (Alex's) position regarding never signing-in and never asking permission of private landowners at traditional forest access points, and Mary stated that she did support this position."
  • On January14, 2017 MOGA sponsored a Montana Access forum in Helena, MT. Region 1 Regional Supervisor Leanne Marten was invited as one of the speakers. This meeting is referenced in the Montana Farm Bureau Federations letter to Sen. Steve Daines on January 30, 2017 (PDF pg. 4). In the closing paragraph, John Youngberg writes, "This issue was brought to the attention of Region 1 Forester Leanne Marten at a recent Montana Outfitters and Guides meeting where she wasn't willing to commit an answer to the question above."
  • At that meeting MOGA Vice-President asked Regional Supervisor Leanne Marten, during the question period, "One of the comments I've heard about is partnership and cooperation. How have prescriptive easements and adverse possession lined up with those goals?" Marten began replying, "Something tells me there's a lot more behind that question." Yes, there certainly is, like the privatization of our public lands and resources on them, especially the wildlife that he outfits, restricting the public's access to both the public lands and wildife. I have documents related to this outfitting coming up on another installment.



Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20250 (202) 720-2791

Forest Service Chief, Thomas Tidwell,  ttidwell@fs.fed.us   (202) 205-8439

Region 1, Regional Forester Leann Marten,  lmarten@fs.fed.us   (406) 329-3315

Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson,  mcerickson@fs.fed.us  (406) 587-6949

Senator Steve Daines, steve@daines.senate.gov   (202) 224-2651

Even though Sen. Tester was not evident in the letters, please contact him as well.
Sen. Jon Tester,  senator@tester.senate.gov   (202) 224-2644 

Representative Greg Gianforte, 1419 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515
 

 

Click to be a Contributor or Subscriber to
Enhancing Montana's Wildlife & Habitat



Thank you,
Kathryn QannaYahu
406-579-7748
www.EMWH.org
Bozeman, MT











Tuesday, June 27, 2017

CWD....Fire may be remedy....NY Times

Photo
A deer with chronic wasting disease. CreditTerry Kreeger 
Mark D. Zabel wants to set some fires.
Dr. Zabel and his colleagues are developing plans to burn plots of National Park Service land in Arkansas and Colorado. If the experiments turn out as the researchers hope, they will spare some elk and deer a gruesome death.
Across a growing swath of North America, these animals are dying from a mysterious disorder called chronic wasting disease. It’s caused not by a virus or bacterium, but a deformed protein called a prion.
When ingested, prions force normal proteins in the animal’s body to become deformed as well. Over the course of months, prions can gradually wreck the animal’s nervous system, ultimately killing it.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chronic wasting disease. In the September issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, Dr. Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, and his former graduate student Aimee Ortega survey what scientists have learned about the slow-spreading plague.
Continue reading the main story
It makes for ominous reading. “There’s a lot that we still don’t know and don’t understand about the disease,” Dr. Zabel said in an interview.
Once chronic wasting disease gets a foothold, it can spread relentlessly. It’s now documented in 24 states, and continues to expand into new ranges. In some herds, as many as half of the animals carry prions.
It’s only been in recent years that scientists have gained crucial clues to how the disease spreads. Direct contact, it turns out, isn’t the only way that the prions get from one animal to another.
Sick animals and cadavers spread prions across the landscape. Plants and soil may remain coated with deformed proteins for years, perhaps even decades. Dr. Zabel now suspects that the only way to rid the land of them is to set controlled fires.
It was at Colorado State University, in 1967, that wildlife biologists first observed some captive mule deer developing a strange new disease. The animals lost weight and awareness of their surroundings. The symptoms slowly worsened until the mule deer died.
“They’re not hard to pick out at the end stage,” Dr. Zabel said. “They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease.”
It wasn’t until much later that researchers discovered that chronic wasting disease belongs to a small group of conditions caused by prions. But other prion diseases are known only to affect livestock or people, not wildlife.
Scrapie, for example, is a deadly disease that afflicts sheep. A number of studies indicated that bone meal contaminated with scrapie prions passed the prions to cows. The cows developed a prion disease of their own, called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, nicknamed mad cow disease.
In rare cases, people who ate beef from the sick cows developed prions in their own brains. As of 2016, 231 people had died from the condition worldwide.
Scientists long suspected that deer and related species developed chronic wasting disease by picking up scrapie from sheep flocks kept at Colorado State University. The disease then turned up in other states and Canada as animals were shipped to private game farms. A shipment of elk to South Korea brought the plague there as well.
But Dr. Zabel now believes that the birth of chronic wasting disease may be more complicated. “I’m starting to second-guess the original hypothesis,” he said.
Prions are misfolded versions of a naturally occurring molecule called cellular prion protein. Experiments carried out in Dr. Zabel’s lab, published in January, suggest that cellular prion protein in deer and related species may be unusually prone to misfolding.
“We were able to generate a new prion,” Dr. Zabel said. “Maybe this is a spontaneous disease.”
That result might explain a startling finding last year: researchers came across a prion-riddled reindeer in Norway, the first time chronic wasting disease had been found in Europe. Since then, two more have been found, and Norway in April approved the culling of over 2000 reindeer to stop the spread.
“The jury is still out on the origin. This new outbreak in Norway just complicates the matter,” Dr. Zabel said.
Dr. Zabel and other scientists are trying to figure out how chronic wasting disease has become so successful. One factor is how the prions spread through an animal’s body. They aren’t limited to the brain in deer, elk or moose. The prions also sweep through lymph nodes and the spleen.
As a result, Dr. Zabel and his colleagues have found, infected animals can release huge numbers of prions. “We found it in urine, in saliva and in feces,” he said. “They shed continually until they die.”
Other members of a herd can get sick by making direct contact with a shedding animal. But the way the disease is spreading across North America suggests that the prions is are also using other routes to get to new hosts.
If deer got sick only by direct contact, for example, you would expect the outbreak to be most severe in the Midwest, where populations are densest. But some of the worst outbreaks are in the Rocky Mountains, where there are fewer animals.
Mathematical models suggest that animals are getting sick from prions in the environment. In additional to the prions shed while a sick animal is alive, its cadaver can release another bounty of deformed proteins onto the ground.
Some studies suggest that these prions can end up on grass and other plants, which are then eaten by healthy animals. Some prions in the soil may bind to minerals. It’s possible that animals may sometimes pick them up if they eat bits of dirt.
Compared with viruses or bacteria, prions are impressively rugged. To decontaminate prion-covered lab equipment, scientists have to heat them to 600 degrees Celsius, or 1112 Fahrenheit.
In a forest or on a prairie, a prion may be able to hang around for years, still able to infect a new animal. As herds migrate along the same route year after year, the supply of prions in the environment may keep increasing.
“It’s starting to make sense,” said Dr. Zabel.
Scientists don’t know enough about the ecology of prions to predict how bad chronic wasting disease will become in future decades. Mountain lions and other predators may lower the infection rate by picking off sick animals as they wander away from their herds.
Scientists have also found genes that give some animals resistance to prions. It’s hoped that resistant animals will reproduce enough to main the populations of herds.
Still, Dr. Zabel worries, the supply of prions in the environment someday might push many herds past a tipping point. “That could result in herd decimation and population declines,” he said.
Dr. Zabel is also concerned about the potential threat chronic wasting disease might someday pose to humans.
So far, there have not been any documented cases in which people got sick from eating meat from sick animals. “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Dr. Zabel warned.
His own experiments showing how easily cellular prion proteins can fold into a dangerous shape suggest that prions may have a potential to become more harmful. “We may just be in the early stages,” he said.
In their review, Dr. Zabel and Ms. Ortega write that researchers have found a number of ways to fight prions. Researchers have found they can rid surgical instruments of prions in an ozone bath, for example.
But such treatments are impractical in the wild. “You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone,” he said.
Instead, Dr. Zabel and his colleagues hope to test controlled burns. While the fires won’t be hot enough to destroy the prions, they might kill off enough prion-laden plants to lower the odds of healthy animals getting sick.
The researchers will test this hypothesis by seeing if the prevalence of chronic wasting disease drops after they set their fires.
Dr. Zabel said he has encountered some stiff skepticism about his plan. But he still thinks it is the only plausible way to put a brake on the prions.
“If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward,” he said. “I really don’t think it’s that crazy.”