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Researchers say wolves could help curb wasting disease

Researchers say wolves could help curb wasting disease

DENVER (AP) – Researchers are looking to wolves to help control the spread
of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, a fatal brain malady some
biologists fear will invade Yellowstone National Park in the next few
years.

Wolves’ uncanny ability to spot vulnerable animals may make them the best
natural control for the disease, since wolves could kill off sick animals,
researchers say.

Wasting disease makes its victims distracted and unwary as it eats tiny
holes in their brains, the Denver Post reported.

“Wolves show up and say, ‘Let’s see what you’ve got,’ ” said National Park
Service biologist Douglas Smith, who helped lead the program that returned
wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996. “And if you don’t have it, they
laser in on you like a fighter pilot. The things they pick up on are
incredibly subtle.”

While the theory is still unproven, but some say it is worth factoring in
to the debate as chronic wasting disease continues its creep north toward
Yellowstone’s famed game herds.

Wasting disease was detected in northern Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin this year
for the first time, and some Wyoming biologists fear CWD will move into
the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in the next year or two.

“Every idea should get a fair hearing and I think disease management is a
fair question for a biologist to ask,” said Russell George, director of
the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

No one has been able to study whether wolves single out CWD-infected
animals because the range of predator and disease have never overlapped.

But over the next few years, that will likely change as both the disease
and wolves spread out.

David Mech, a biologist with the United States Geologic Survey who is
considered the world’s top wolf expert, cautioned that until wolves and
wasting disease actually interact, theories about wolves controlling the
spread of the disease are just speculation.

Wasting disease was first identified in a Fort Collins wildlife research
station in 1967, spreading into southeast Wyoming by the 1980s. Last year
it was discovered as far away as Wisconsin.

Unlike other predators like mountain lions and coyotes, wolves constantly
test potential prey, looking for weakness. This hunting style, Smith said,
seems perfectly tailored to removing sick animals.

“Wolves are probably the single best way to stop the spread of CWD,” he
said. “Chronic wasting disease causes animals to act weird. Wolves kill
animals like that.”

University of Calgary professor Valerius Geist, an expert on deer and elk,
said wolves can remove infected individuals and clean up carcasses that
could transmit the disease.

Geist and Princeton University biologist Andrew Dobson theorize that
killing off the wolf allowed CWD to take hold in the first place.

A federal predator control program in the 1920s eliminated the last
prairie wolves in the region, according to Michael Robinson of the Center
for Biological Diversity.

Using wolves to manage the disease could be tricky though.

“Emotions against wolves are so strong that I’m not sure this potential
benefit, which I agree might be there, would sway the opinions of many
folks,” retired Wyoming Game and Fish veterinarian Tom Thorne said. “I
think it would be a long, long time before people are used to wolves
enough to admit they might be doing a bit of good.”

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