Some scientists say that the predators are essential to curbing the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease because they pick off weak deer. Are the wolves of Yellowstone National Park the first line of defense against a terrible disease that preys on herds of wildlife?
The primary findings of a recent study say yes, according to a report by The New York Times.
Researchers are studying what is known as the predator cleansing effect, which occurs when a predator sustains the health of a prey population by killing the sickest animals. If the idea holds, it could mean that wolves have a role to play in limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is infecting deer and similar animals across the country and around the world. Experts fear that it could one day jump to humans.
"There is no management tool that is effective for controlling the disease," said Ellen Brandell, a doctoral student in wildlife ecology at Penn State University who is leading the project in collaboration with the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service. "There is no vaccine. Can predators potentially be the solution?" she asked.
Many biologists and conservationists say that more research would strengthen the case that reintroducing more wolves in certain parts of the United States could help manage wildlife diseases, although the idea is sure to face pushback from hunters, ranchers and others concerned about competition from wolves.
The Chronic wasting disease is a contagious neurological disease, so unusual that some experts call it a "disease from outer space." First discovered among wild deer in 1981, it leads to deterioration of brain tissue in cervids, mostly deer but also elk, moose and caribou, with symptoms such as listlessness, drooling, staggering, emaciation and death.