Carnivores and Chronic Wasting

It is widely known that the western U.S. was colonized with a deep-rooted fear and hatred of carnivores, such as mountain lions (Puma concolor), coyotes (Canis latrans), and black bears (Ursus americanus). This mentality has persisted throughout generations and is evident in the management of wildlife today. However, as diseases are spreading across the continental U.S. in deer, elk, and moose populations, scientists are looking to the natural predators of these animals for answers.

A recent article looks at Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and compares different hunting methods for efficiency in removing the prions (misfolded proteins) that cause the disease in deer and elk herds. Previous research has found that humans and carnivores hunt differently, where humans target the largest males, with the biggest antlers, but carnivores target sick and weak animals in the herd. The difference in hunting dynamics causes herds hunted by humans alone to be significantly less healthy, with smaller and weaker individuals remaining in the herd, compared to herds hunted by natural carnivores, as found in numerous other studies.

Previous research found that mountain lions and wolves are especially effective at removing the prions from the environment and CWD from the herd. Whereas, artificial feeding causes the prions to multiply and the disease to spread throughout the herd and even transmit to other species that may share the artificial feeding area.

Carnivores are believed to threaten the health of elk and deer populations by many human hunters they compete with. However, as diseases spread throughout populations, possibly threatening humans and their domestic animals, can scientists change the negative sentiment people have towards carnivores, to help minimize the spread of wildlife diseases like CWD in the environment? The future conservation of all wildlife species depends on our ability to coexist with our wild carnivore neighbors for a healthier ecosystem.

Jessica Whalen

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