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To Save Wildlife from a 100% Fatal Disease – Look to Wolves

Long before COVID-19 emerged, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike had been worried about an epidemic that threatens some of our most iconic wildlife species.

We’re talking about chronic wasting disease (CWD) – – an ultra-lethal degenerative neurological illness similar to mad cow disease among elk, deer, and moose that is invading ecosystems across the American landscape.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, CWD was first identified in Colorado in the late 1960s. To date, CWD has been detected in free-ranging deer, elk, and moose in 24 states and two provinces in Canada, and the affected areas are expected to continue to expand.

Currently, there is no known vaccine. Moreover, control strategies relying on hunting or “culling” by humans to lower deer, elk, and moose numbers and subsequently, CWD prevalence have not yielded demonstrable effects.

Enter wolves.

New research is underway in Yellowstone National Park to determine the role of predation in CWD dynamics.

Predators—particularly coursing predators such as wolves—generally choose their victims based on physical condition, preferring young, old, sick, or injured prey. Relying on their acute senses, wolves use visual cues, scents, and sounds to identify the most vulnerable member of the herd by detecting signs of illness that are too subtle for humans to see.

Because there is no evidence that wolves are susceptible to the disease, they can safely consume prey infected with CWD. In doing so, wolves remove infectious agents from the environment and reduce transmission to healthy deer, elk, etc. The scientific community argues that in this manner, wolves could be a useful tool to help reduce the spread of CWD and drive decreases in CWD prevalence.

So the question remains, with wolves so well suited to maintaining the health and vigor of prey populations, why are some states spending millions in tax dollars to eliminate the very predators that help keep wildlife diseases in check?