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Predators: Possible Allies in Fight Against Chronic Wasting Disease?

A wildlife biologist says wolves and other large predators have an innate ability to find diseased prey in herds. (Tupulak/Flickr)
A wildlife biologist says wolves and other large predators have an innate ability to find diseased prey in herds. (Tupulak/Flickr)
December 10, 2018

HELENA, Mont. – Could wolves and other large predators be border guards in the fight against Chronic Wasting Disease?

One biologist believes so, as CWD, an infectious neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose populations, spreads in the Mountain West.

Biologist Gary Wolfe, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, says large predators such as wolves have an innate ability to sense disease in prey populations.

He says halting recreational hunting of large predators like cougars or wolves in areas with emerging CWD outbreaks could curb the disease.

"I think it'd be worthwhile to curtail the recreational hunting for those large predators if, at the same time, you're trying to address a[n] emerging outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease and see whether or not those large predators could assist in containing that disease," he states.

Wolfe says a study on mountain lions found they selectively prey on CWD-infected mule deer, showing that predators likely would target diseased animals.

But he adds that there would be major pushback from hunters if recreational hunting were cut back.

Currently, the main approach for containing the disease in many states is recreational deer hunts in areas where CWD has been identified to reduce the deer population and its chance of spreading.

Wolfe says the fact that predators tend to sniff out the weakest prey, and also hunt around the clock, would make them better candidates for selecting infected animals.

"Those predators can be more effective at taking out weakened animals from the population than the hunter will be by randomly taking animals out of the population," he states.

Wolfe says there's some evidence that wolves might already be helping prevent CWD's spread.

He says if you place a map of wolf population distribution over areas where the disease has been detected in the Mountain West, you'll find there's very little overlap.

"That's circumstantial evidence, but to me that's a piece of circumstantial evidence that says that wolf predation can help slow the spread of the disease," he states.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT