Study contemplates predators’ role in reducing chronic wasting disease
Thu., April 14, 2022
BILLINGS – With its diversity of predators, could Yellowstone National Park be a disease-free island in a surrounding sea of chronic wasting disease?
That’s speculation based on a recent study by Ellen Brandell who, with other scientists, built a model to analyze the role predators play in removing sick animals from the environment.
“The Yellowstone Ecosystem is an exciting area to study this because there is a rich predator community and CWD has just started to infect elk and deer,” Blandell wrote in a blog posted on the Animal Ecology in Focus website.
Dan MacNulty, from Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources and Ecology Center, has studied wolves in Yellowstone for years. He collaborated with Blandell on her study and said, “There is a growing body of scientific research, including our recent study, that predicts that Yellowstone National Park will become an island mostly free of CWD in a sea of CWD infection thanks to its diverse and abundant community of large carnivores.”
Doug Smith, lead wolf biologist in Yellowstone National Park, also collaborated on the study. He said the modeling is missing one key piece of information – how effectively wolves and cougars will prey on CWD-infected elk and deer.
If the predators identify a sick animal early in its infection, the effect will be much greater, he said.
Another question is, how many infected animals will predators kill? And will the kill rate of sick animals be higher than that for healthy ones?
Despite the weak points in some knowledge, Smith said the model shows that predators could help slow CWD’s spread by removing sick animals from the landscape.
“I would say this is one of the benefits of having an intact predator community,” he said.
By collecting brain stem material from elk and deer that predators have killed and analyzing it for CWD, Yellowstone researchers are attempting to find out infection and kill rates in the park. Smith and his colleagues also capture elk every winter and test them for the disease.
Smith is also hopeful that with time, evidence may be collected to support the CWD theory.
“The utility of models like this is a deeper understanding of complex ecological relationships, but models require simplifying certain processes as well and should be interpreted with some caution,” Brandell wrote.
Other collaborators on Brandell’s modeling included: Paul C. Cross, Will Rogers, Nathan L. Galloway, Daniel R. Stahler, John Treanor and Peter J. Hudson.
Scientists already know predators will often kill sick, old, young and weak prey that are easier to take down. So maybe mountain lions and wolves could play a role in removing elk, deer or moose that have chronic wasting disease, Brandell’s study hypothesizes.
A 2010 study in Colorado’s Front Range “showed mule deer killed by mountain lions were more likely to be infected with CWD than mule deer killed by hunters,” Colorado State University reported. A 2008 study, however, found that “such selective predation by mountain lions … did not limit CWD transmission in deer populations with high infection rates.”
The theory was that because lions ambush their prey, instead of chasing like wolves, cougars may be “less likely to detect sick animals compared to wolves.”
Reducing the number of animals, with or without CWD, is one tool state wildlife agencies employ to lessen the disease’s spread. This is based on the fact that CWD is more easily dispersed if animals are in close contact. It also recognizes that hunters can remove sick animals from the population, sometimes before they show symptoms of infection.
Seeing predators as another tool to keep disease prevalence low is an argument wolf advocates have long been making to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. With that in mind, groups like Wolves of the Rockies have been seeking to lower wolf hunting and trapping quotas in the state, so far to no avail.
In Yellowstone, wolves primarily dine on elk, accounting for around 96% of their diet in winter and 85% in summer, according to the National Park Service. Mountain lions rely on elk for about 55% of their diet, with about 45% coming from mule deer, the Yellowstone Cougar Project found.
Chronic wasting disease tends to infect adult male deer more often than females. Elk seem somewhat resistant to the disease, although Montana detected its first infected elk in 2019 and a Wyoming elk shot in Grand Teton National Park tested positive for CWD in 2020.
Montana’s first detected case of CWD in wild deer occurred in 2017 in south-central Montana’s Carbon County. In Wyoming, the disease is working its way north and west since it was first identified in 1985.
The disease, which causes damage to the infected animal’s brain, is always fatal. The abnormal proteins that cause CWD, called prions, are spread from an infected animal’s bodily fluids or feces. Once in the environment, the prions can survive for years, making it difficult to eradicate.
So far, 27 states and two Canadian provinces have detected CWD infected animals. The sickness has also been found in South Korea and Norway.
Brandell’s study comes out in the wake of the October publication of a U.S. Geological Survey study documenting the benefit of scavengers – from ravens and crows to coyotes and golden eagles – as landscape sanitizers. The study placed disease-free cattle fetuses in different types of habitat. Cameras were set up to film what animals arrived to feed and how long it was before the fetuses were eaten.
The goal was to mimic when elk, which can carry brucellosis, abort their fetus. The birthing material is believed to be one of the main ways brucellosis is spread.
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