Wind Cave elk captures help keep population healthy, bring valuable information on Chronic Wasting Disease
HOT SPRINGS, S.D. – Tuesday was check-up day at Wind Cave as park officials monitored elk for the fatal Chronic Wasting Disease. Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, is a disease affecting the brain in deer and elk populations.
“They drastically lose weight, they get droopy ears. They’re lethargic, they may not run from humans,” Wind Cave National Park biologist Angela Jarding explained. “And then, ultimately, they’ll die of emaciation.”
According to the National Park Service, the first case in South Dakota appeared in 1997, with Wind Cave’s first case appearing five years later.
On December 7, officials from the park and a crew were out capturing cows, or female elk, for CWD testing.
Once ready, the crew would isolate an elk believed to be infected and drop a net via helicopter.
“And then, they’ll start to put a radio collar on,” Natural Resources manager Greg Schroeder began. “They’ll also fly back to veterinarian, and the veterinarian will come in and take the samples that she needs to take from the animal as well.”
After the biological samples are tested, the animal will be separated in order to try preventing the spread. As for the radio collars, park officials are able to gather important data on information such as movement and resource management.
Prior to 2016, anywhere from 200 to 500 elk could be seen at the park.
However, as cases began to rise, officials began to reduce the population density as a means of slowing the spread.
Now in its fifth year, this method has been showing signs of decreasing cases.
Currently, around 250 elk roam the park. That number is on the low end population-wise, but could be sustainable over time.
“That’s where we would like to keep it,” Schroeder said. “And I think that’s probably where, long-term, the population would need to be to have a stable healthy elk population here at Wind Cave.”