September 4th marks National Wildlife Day. Land-grant universities across the country work to support wildlife through conservation and management. Learn more about some of these NIFA-supported projects below.
Understanding Chronic Wasting Disease in Elk
Wyoming’s wildlife populations are constantly facing new and changing threats that require them to adapt. Chronic cervical wasting disease (CWD) is found in both captive and free cervix (deer family) in at least 26 states and three Canadian provinces, as well as in other countries. This disease causes weight loss, behavioral changes, a mortality rate of nearly 100%, and there is evidence of population decline caused by CWD. The presence of sick elk is harmful to hunting and wildlife viewing communities, and it is also detrimental to the ecosystems in which elk live. Elk likely spread CWD to deer and moose, and elk are a vital component of their ecological communities and habitats.
However, previous studies indicate that some elk have genetic mutations that are associated with slower disease progression and possibly lower susceptibility to infection. Understanding how animals deal with new challenges – including diseases – is a critical component of supporting healthy wildlife populations through conservation and management efforts.
University of Wyoming The researchers teamed up with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish to collect elk samples at poachers’ screening stations. The samples were tested for the presence of the protein that causes CWD, and then submitted to the researchers for gene sequencing testing. More than 700 elk samples have been sequenced to sequence the CWD protein genes, and scientists plan to sequence nearly 1,000 samples, strategically taken throughout the Wyoming elk distribution. The researchers will perform a statistical analysis of the data including assessments regarding the presence of CWD protein in individual elk and geographical assessments.
Alien earthworms expand their reach and impact on forest ecosystems
Non-native earthworms cause a series of ecosystem effects. These exotic earthworms rapidly consume organic matter while digging up the soil, accelerating decomposition and nutrient loss. This results in changes in carbon sequestration, forest disturbance regimes, soil and water quality, forest productivity, plant communities and wildlife habitats. Invasive earthworms further facilitate other invasive species. In a warmer and wetter world, their habitat and numbers are likely to grow faster.
Researchers at University of Minnesota The effects of the invasion and ecosystem of exotic earthworms in the forests of Minnesota have been explored for more than a decade. Recently, they have expanded their research to cooler climates. In 2019, after several years of extensive surveys of earthworms in Arctic Sweden, they began studying the introduction and spread of the environmental impacts of European earthworms in Alaska.
They found that in Alaska, an active invasion and spread of earthworms occurs through many different human activities such as gardening, fishing, and road building. Continued climate change is likely to enhance the survival and increase the spread of earthworms in northern and inland Alaska soon. Given the massive ecological cascades caused by alien earthworms in 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 feral pig reduction project and education programs
With at least 3.5 million feral hogs, Texas has the largest population of feral hogs in the United States. Wild boar numbers and range continue to increase due to high reproduction rates and a lack of natural predators. Feral pigs cause extensive damage to crops, livestock, pastures, fields, fences, roads, ponds, streams, and rivers, as well as wildlife populations and their habitats. Research indicates that losses in field crops alone exceed $205 million annually, while total agricultural damage is likely to exceed $230 million annually. Feral pigs pose a significant public health risk as a reservoir of disease for 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 in the reduction and removal of wild boars and to provide producers and landowners with tools to facilitate the control of feral boars themselves. These efforts reached 1.9 million people from 2017 to 2019 and resulted in reduced damage to crops, livestock and agricultural property after removing nearly 90,000 feral hogs with a total economic benefit of $40.5 million since 2017.
Top photo: Bull elk in fall in Wyoming. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.