Wind Cave elk capture project to limit spread of disease
Project to evaluate success or failure of population management and disease mitigation in elk population
WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, S.D. – In temperatures of about 12 degrees above zero, a crew of three researchers took off in a helicopter from Wind Cave National Park’s Wildlife Capture Facility Friday.
The team was on a two-day mission as part of a larger research project to locate and capture about 28 cow elk in the park and fit them with tracking collars.
“In 2016, we took a management action which was to reduce the number of elk within the park,” said Greg Schroeder, chief of resource management at Wind Cave National Park. “We’re hoping that that reduction in the number of elk will help reduce the prevalence rate and allow more elk to survive. So, this research captures that information to let us know if our management action was successful.”
Schroeder was talking about the prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a neurological disease related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
Three years ago, park officials reduced the elk population after CWD became common in the population.
The tracking collars will track elk movement and send email messages with location information to researchers. After locating elk using the system, they can find the animal and perform tests for CWD. This information will help park managers determine how effective the program was at stemming the spread of the disease, which can be devastating to an elk herd.
“Once elk have this disease and once they acquire it either through contact with other infected elk or picking it up from the environment, these elk will die, it’s only a matter of time,” said Schroeder.
CWD thrives in dense populations of elk.
Not long ago, Wind Cave National Park had an elk population estimated to be as high as 900. Glen Sargeant, research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explained how that population contributed to increased infection.
“If you’re dealing with a population at as high density as was the case at Wind Cave, and you don’t reduce it and you let nature take its course and let the population decline gradually, all that while the environment is becoming progressively more contaminated with more risk of infecting more animals down the road,” Sargeant said.
Deformed proteins in the nervous system called prions cause CWD.
Prions are difficult to destroy and can be passed along from eating infected meat, or from animal waste.
The population reduction program has reduced the elk population to about 240, near the goal of 230.
“The question is whether we can reduce the accumulation of prions in the environment,” Sargeant said. “To possibly bring about a reduction in infection and lead to a sustainable population of lower density rather than trying to sustain a high-density population where disease plays a larger role.”
While there have been no human cases of CWD, officials urge all hunters to have their game animals tested.
“Honestly all people should get their animals tested if they are in an area that’s known to have it so you know you have that extra information out there,” Schroeder said. “The state is also encouraging people to get their animals tested.”
Wind Cave National Park officials expect the research project to be completed by 2022 or 2023.