Can wolf reintroduction help stave off chronic wasting disease?

Proponents of Colorado’s initiative to reintroduce the predators suggest they could bolster herds against the disease.

 

This story was originally published by CPR News and is republished here with permission.

Last year, Eric Washburn shot and killed a mule buck in Northern Colorado. Its thick coat and massive rack of antlers convinced him of the animal’s health, so he had the meat processed and chucked it into his freezer.

A few weeks later, a mandatory Colorado Parks and Wildlife test revealed the animal had chronic wasting disease. The deadly neurological condition was first discovered in Fort Collins, in 1967. It’s similar to mad cow disease, but affects deer, elk and moose.

Washburn had to toss his venison since there’s an outside chance CWD could someday spread to people.

“All of that beautiful meat went into the garbage rather than feeding the family for the year,” he lamented. “It just showed me you can’t tell by looks which deer are diseased and which are not.”

Wolves, however, might not have the same difficulty discerning the difference.

Since the predators hunt weak or otherwise vulnerable prey, the logic follows that they might pick off CWD-infected animals. The threat of a wolf pack could also force deer and elk into smaller herds, helping to stem the spread of the disease.

This black wolf was photographed in Yellowstone, Wyoming. Recently there was a reported wolf sighting in northern Colorado.

That’s one big reason why Washburn, a Steamboat Springs sportsman and conservationist, is helping the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund put an initiative before Colorado voters in 2020. If successful, wildlife managers would be directed to come up with a plan to reintroduce grey wolves in Colorado “using the best scientific evidence available.” It’d also require the state to compensate livestock owners for any loses.

Supporters will need to collect 124,632 valid signatures by Dec. 13 to make the ballot.

Sportsmen are deeply divided. Some, like Washburn, think wolves could be a natural ally in the battle against chronic wasting disease. In 2018, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported that at least 31 of Colorado’s 54 deer herds have the disease. Sixteen of the state's 43 elk herds are also infected.

While most hunters find those figures concerning, leading advocacy groups aren’t ready to enlist the wolves to combat CWD. They worry the predators could further harm ailing herds. Colorado would also be the first state where voters decide whether to reintroduce the predators, rather than wildlife managers.

“Ballot box biology is a little dangerous,” said Mark Holyoak, director of communications for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “To take this type of approach is a reckless and a really big gamble as far as what the impacts would be.”

Holyoak also likes Colorado's current plan for wolves: wait for them to arrive on their own. In 2016, the Colorado Wildlife Commission rejected a plan to reestablish gray wolves but resolved the predators should be left alone if they migrate into the state.

Recent sightings suggest that might be happening. On Monday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced it was working to confirm one wolf sighting in Jackson County and another in Grand County.

As for the claim that the wolves could help stem CWD, Holyoak is skeptical. He said that while it makes sense in theory, there’s no real-world evidence that the predators remove infected animals or bolster herds against the disease. Instead, what’s known is based on ecological models or circumstantial evidence, like biologists who’ve noted a lesser prevalence of CWD in areas with wolves.

“People throw it out there and just because you say something doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said. “It needs to be shown. It needs to be proven.”

CWD passes from animal to animal through prions — misfolded proteins that cause other proteins to misform around them. Holyoak notes one study which found prions remain infectious after they pass through a coyotes’ digestive system. He speculates that could mean wolves might help spread the disease, not stop it.

Matt Dunfee, who leads the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance in Fort Collins, is more agnostic about the potential for wolves to guard against chronic wasting disease.

“Probably the fairest answer is that we don’t exactly know what it would do, but it might help,” he said.

For him, it makes intuitive sense that CWD would make deer or elk more susceptible to predators. In the disease’s final stages, infected animals stumble about with a vacant stare. Researchers have found predators like wolves and coyotes disproportionately prey on animals impaired by malnutrition or disease. Another study found mountain lions are much more likely to prey on animals infected with CWD.

Even if that’s true, Dunfee said wolves could introduce a number of other dynamics. Animals could spread out more or bunch up more. They could have more nose to nose contact, which further risks spreading the disease.

Add it all up, he thinks the public should be cautious. Wolves would bring big changes to Colorado’s ecosystems. It’s hard to say if they would fight CWD.

“I think it’s a factor to consider,” he said. “But to claim that if we add wolves back in it will positively impact the disease prevalence in wild herds? We just don’t have enough information to know that.”

Sam Brasch covers the state legislature for Colorado Public Radio. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...