September 4 marks National Wildlife Day. Across the nation, Land-grant Universities are working to support wildlife through conservation and management. Learn more about some of these NIFA-supported projects below.
Understanding Chronic Wasting Disease in Elk
Wyoming wildlife populations constantly face new and changing threats that require them to adapt. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in cervids (the deer family) exists in both captive and free-ranging cervids in at least 26 states and three Canadian provinces, as well as in other countries. This disease causes weight loss, behavioral changes and almost 100% mortality, and there is evidence for CWD-induced population declines. The presence of diseased elk is harmful for hunting and wildlife viewing communities, as well as damaging to ecosystems in which elk live. Elk likely can spread CWD to deer and moose, and elk are a vital component in their ecological communities and habitats.
However, previous studies indicate some elk have genetic mutations that correlate to slower disease progression and potentially lower susceptibility. Understanding how animals handle new challenges–including disease–is a crucial component to supporting healthy wildlife populations through conservation and management efforts.
University of Wyoming researchers collaborated with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish to collect samples from elk at hunter check stations. The samples were tested for the presence of the protein that causes CWD, then provided to researchers for gene sequence testing. Over 700 elk samples have been sequenced for the CWD protein gene sequence, and scientists plan to sequence approximately 1,000 samples, strategically taken throughout elk distribution in Wyoming. Researchers will conduct statistical analysis of the data including assessments in relation to the presence of the CWD protein in individual elk and geographic assessments.
Exotic Earthworms Expand Reach, Effects on Forest Ecosystems
Non-native earthworms cause a cascade of ecosystem effects. These exotic earthworms rapidly consume organic matter while burrowing through soils, speeding up decomposition and nutrient losses. This results in changes in carbon sequestration, forest disturbance regimes, soil and water quality, forest productivity, plant communities and wildlife habitat. Invasive earthworms further facilitate other invasive species. In a warmer and wetter world, their habitats and numbers are likely to grow increasingly faster.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have been exploring the invasion and ecosystem impacts of exotic earthworms in Minnesota’s forests for more than a decade. Recently, they extended their research to even colder climates. In 2019, after several years of intensive earthworm surveys in arctic Sweden, they began to examine the introduction, dispersal and ecological impacts of European earthworms in Alaska.
They found that, in Alaska, active earthworm invasion and dispersal occurs through many different types of human activities such as gardening, fishing, and road building. Ongoing climate change will likely boost the survival and further dispersal of earthworms in the northern and interior Alaska soon. Considering the massive ecological cascades that exotic earthworms cause to the soil carbon and nutrient cycles, understanding the dynamics of earthworm invasion should be a key component of future climate-related conservation efforts in both boreal and temperate forest ecosystems.
Extension Assists with Feral Hog Abatement Project and Education Programs
With at least 3.5 million feral hogs, Texas has the largest feral hog population in the United States. Feral hog numbers and range continue to increase because of high reproductive rates and lack of natural predators. Feral hogs cause significant damage to crops, livestock, pastures, fields, fences, roads, ponds, streams and rivers, as well as wildlife populations and their habitat. Research indicates losses to field crops alone exceed $205 million annually, while total agricultural damages likely exceed $230 million annually. Feral hogs pose a considerable public health risk as a disease reservoir to wildlife, livestock, and humans. Texas landowners spend an estimated $7 million or more annually on feral hog control and damage mitigation.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Extension Wildlife Services conducted educational outreach to assist agricultural producers and landowners with the abatement and removal of feral hogs and provided producers and landowners with the tools necessary to facilitate feral hog abatement themselves. The efforts reached 1.9 million people from 2017 to 2019 and resulted in reduction in crop, livestock and agricultural property damages following the removal of nearly 90,000 feral hogs for a total economic benefit of $40.5 million since 2017.
Top image: Bull elk in autumn in Wyoming. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.