JACKSON — When Amy Girard sees a dead animal, she doesn’t just see a lifeless corpse.
“I want to open it up,” Girard said, laughing. “I want to know what it looks like on the inside. It’s always a surprise. You don’t know what you’re gonna find.”
Girard, 42, is the National Elk Refuge’s new wildlife biologist. She has lived in Jackson for roughly 15 years and took the job this February. Previously she worked for Teton Weed and Pest, fighting back against Teton County’s flying bloodsucking insects — mosquitos — that proliferate in flood-irrigated fields. In her new role, Girard won’t be so worried about tiny, winged bugs. She’ll be focused on Jackson’s herds of elk, which draw tourists, hunters and scrutiny from around the country.
But that doesn’t mean Girard is going to give up her focus on smaller organisms and biology.
She’ll be focusing on wildlife diseases like hoof rot and chronic wasting disease, sicknesses caused by microscopic bacteria and mis-folded proteins known as prions.
But for mammalian disease hunters like Girard, tracking illness isn’t always so easy. Some infections like hoof rot are relatively easy to spot. Chronic wasting disease, though, is difficult to identify by eyeing animals alone. Detecting it usually requires sampling ungulate’s lymph nodes. And determining how, exactly, an animal died is generally difficult. In the wild there’s a lot at play.
Raised in Bad Axe, Michigan — all the way at the tip of the thumb — Girard grew up wanting to be a vet or work in a zoo. As a kid she knew those jobs would allow her to work with animals.
She’s an animal person through and through.
“I love it all,” Girard said of the animal kingdom. Aside from elk, she likes “the little ones that you don’t get to see very often, like little small mammals.” Ditto insects, which she finds fascinating.
“It’s all interesting,” she said. “There’s so much to learn out here.”
When Girard went to college, she realized working with domestic pets or captive wildlife wasn’t the only professional way to get her hands on some fur. She landed a few jobs in undergrad that focused on wildlife and zoonotic disease. When Girard graduated she landed jobs trapping small mammals, researching lesser prairie chickens, and working with insects. She ended up in Utah, where she continued the small mammal work, and met her husband, Carlin.
The two took a trip to Jackson Hole one weekend, riding into town on Carlin’s dirt bike.
“It got a little chilly,” Girard said. The bike wasn’t “necessarily meant for long rides with two people,” she said.
That was 15 years ago. They’ve left a few times, but still live in Jackson and still have the bike, which Carlin has considered selling since they’ve had kids. She’s resisted.
“It’s kind of like this symbolic thing of those first years together,” Girard said. “So I’m always like, eh, don’t sell it yet.”
In Jackson Girard has worked in conservation. Her most recent gig was focused on skeeter zapping. But, earlier, she worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, where she first had the chance to open animals up. She was hooked.
Now she’s right where she wants to be: “I think this position, trying to pursue wildlife disease, is what I’ve been working towards my whole life.”
But Girard isn’t a hunter. She’s gone out, but never pulled the trigger. It’s not her thing.
“I don’t kill spiders. I let them outside,” she said. “But once it’s dead, it’s free game.”
Free game, that is, if she can get to an animal first. The National Elk Refuge is a big piece of Jackson Hole’s wild federally managed lands. There are wolves, foxes, birds, bears and other scavengers in the area that will devour a carcass. If she can beat the scavengers to a dead elk, it’s game on — time to look for clues as to why it died.
“Did the animal have diarrhea? Did there look like a struggle? Is there a leg broken? If you’re palpating the animal do you feel anything odd?” Girard said.
And that’s just where her investigation starts: the outside.
Once she does begin a dissection — an operation that usually happens in the field — Girard looks for other clues: anything that doesn’t look normal. “Disgusting” looking lungs, lesions, pus or rotten tissue that was decomposing while the animal was still alive.
“You’re looking at every single organ that you have access to and just saying, like, is this normal? Is this abnormal? Can I tell?” Girard said. “It’s not clear.”
“It all adds up to these complicated stories that are tough to tell,” Girard said.
Her job, she said, is to describe “what’s actually happening.”
That’s particularly important now, a few years after chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Jackson Hole’s elk herds. The lethal virus that spreads among crowded animals hasn’t been detected yet on the refuge, where thousands of ungulates gather for winter feeding.
But it’s come close. The first positive elk sample in Jackson Hole came from Grand Teton National Park, which is directly to the north of the federal wildlife refuge. Girard said there’s a lot of unknowns about the disease, which has been found in wild animals
in 27 states, as well as South Korea, northern Europe and two Canadian provinces. In Wyoming it’s affecting different herds and species differently, but nearly all mule deer north of Riverton are testing positive. Mule deer and moose have also tested positive in Jackson Hole.
The prions — misfolded proteins — that cause the disease are nearly impossible to destroy, and can live in the environment for up to 16 years. So if an elk or deer transfers some via saliva to soil, and another animal comes along and eats grass that grew there 10 years later, there’s fear they can be infected.
Infection spells death for ungulates like elk and deer.
“Chronic wasting disease is this huge black box that we’re walking towards,” Girard said.
Wildlife managers don’t know, exactly, how it will affect Jackson’s herds.
“But we know it’s not going to be good,” Girard said.
For Girard, though, that’s an opportunity to dig in and do the work she loves. Right where she wants to be, she’ll have the chance to get outside, and get her hands dirty trying to figure out what, exactly, is happening to the animals on the refuge. She wants to see them thrive. But the ones that don’t will become clues along the way.
“It’s an interesting treasure hunt,” she said, “for treasure that most people don’t want to find.”