Current federal and state government initiatives, backed by diverse vested interests, are poised to reduce the nation's existing wolf population, which is contrary to the directives of sound science, reason and the public interest.
State wildlife management practices are directed to maximize deer numbers for recreational hunters. This has been accomplished by rural America's virtual extermination of the wolf over the past two centuries, coupled with forest management practices and agricultural expansion that indirectly provide feed for deer. The encroachment of housing developments with deer-attracting gardens and vegetation in municipal parks have had unforseen consequences associated with higher populations of white-tailed deer and elk numbers in western states. Two of these consequences concern public health and potential harm to the livestock industry, which a higher population of wolves would do much to recitify.
Hunters seek out the healthiest deer and trophy antler-bearers in particular. Seasonal hunts eliminating almost one-quarter of the deer population in states such as Minnesota means starvation for wolves in deer-hunted zones, increasing their predation on livestock. Increasing hunting quotas to better regulate deer numbers is not a biologically appropriate response, even though it is a multibillion dollar source of revenue for states and equipment suppliers, because killing the healthiest deer does not satisfy the same ecological need as predation by wolves.
Wolves prey on deer year-round, taking the slower ones weakened by injury and disease, and therefore play a significant role in controlling diseases carried by deer, notably the prion that causes chronic wasting disease (CWD). This disease also affects mule deer, elk and moose and is now spreading across the U.S. and Canada. Wolves are probably immune. But if these prions mutate and cross the species barrier to affect livestock, the consequences could have devastating economic consequences for the livestock industry. This could mirror the mad cow disease debacle in the U.K., which led to mass slaughter and export bans to protect consumers from cattle infected with this form of spongioform encephalopathy, which in humans causes the debilitating and fatal brain degeneration Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Dr. Christopher Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey, who found prions in crops and vegetation consumed by deer, concludes that its findings "suggest that prions are taken up by plants (from infected deer) and that contaminated plants may represent a previously unrecognized risk of human, domestic species and wildlife exposure to CWD and scrapie agents.
This October, cattle in Wisconsin contracted insect-borne deer epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a historical first and a warning to the livestock industry about the need to better monitor deer numbers and disease risks, especially CWD.
Organic farmers and environmentally conscious ranchers have long recognized the role of predators and other wildlife species in helping preserve healthy ecosystems around and within their lands. What is called for now is an ecological approach to states' wildife management and predator control policies and practices, an approach that moves away from the farming of wildlife for the recreational sport hunting of deer, elk and other selected species.
In the final analysis, the wolf, long reviled by cattle and sheep ranchers and seen by many deer hunters as a competitor to be exterminated, may be the ultimate savior of America's livestock industry by stemming CWD and other communicable diseases through the predation of infected deer. This means more wolves in deer and elk habitats.
The Centers for Disease Control documented more than 30,000 cases of tickborne Lyme disease in humans in 2012. This disease is harbored by rodents and deer, and wolves can play an indirect role in helping control it. These concerns underscore the need for a revolution in state and federal wildlife and natural resource management. The adoption of principles and practices that enhance biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is the core principle of the One Health movement now being embraced worldwide by medical, veterinary and other authorities and agencies. These policies should include greateer protection for wolves as an integral aspect of a more enlightened and scienced-based approach to a better environment for all.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
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