A 10-year study conducted by the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department suggests that the effects of chronic wasting disease on elk may not be as devastating as once believed.
Research has shown that genes play a role in elk susceptibility to CWD. Some elk have genes that prolong the time between exposure to the CWD prion, the infectious agent of CWD, and the onset of the disease. These genes become dominant over many decades, greatly reducing the impact of CWD on the population. Elk with these genes live longer even when heavily exposed to CWD, and therefore have more opportunity to reproduce than elk with other genes.
Some people have feared that winter feedgrounds for elk would concentrate the disease resulting in a much higher incidence of CWD.
“This study model essentially represents the worst-case scenario that would face feedground elk,” said Terry Kreeger, retired state wildlife veterinarian for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “We predict a genetic shift over several decades favoring genes that prolong the incubation time of CWD resulting in elk populations that are able to persist in the face of the disease.”
Scott Edberg, deputy chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Division, said, “It helps to know that based on this research, if CWD should become established on feedgrounds, we won’t see a devastating effect on populations as many have feared. This research also looked at how hunting would affect populations, and it appears, Game and Fish would still need to have hunting seasons to manage elk populations even if faced with CWD on feedgrounds.”
The full study was published in an issue of Ecospohere, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed scientific publication of the Ecological Society of America and can be accessed at www.esajournals.org.