Supporting wildlife through conservation and management

National Wildlife Day is celebrated on September 4. Across the country, Land-grant universities are working to support wildlife through conservation and management. Learn more about some of these NIFA-supported projects below.

Understanding CWD in Elk

Wyoming’s wildlife populations are constantly facing new and changing threats that require them to adapt. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids (the deer family) exists in both captive and free-living cervids in at least 26 states and three Canadian provinces, as well as other countries. This disease causes weight loss, behavioral changes, and nearly 100% mortality, and there is evidence of CWD-induced population decline. The presence of diseased elk is harmful to hunting and wildlife viewing communities, as well as harming the ecosystems in which elk live. Elk are likely to transmit CWD to deer and elk, and elk are a vital component of their communities and ecological habitats.

However, previous studies indicate that some elk have genetic mutations that correlate with slower disease progression and potentially lower susceptibility. Understanding how animals manage new challenges, including disease, is a crucial component of supporting healthy wildlife populations through conservation and management efforts.

University of Wyoming The researchers collaborated with the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game to collect moose samples at hunter control stations. The samples were tested for the presence of the protein that causes chronic wasting disease and then given to researchers for gene sequencing testing. More than 700 moose samples have been sequenced for the CWD protein gene sequence, and scientists plan to sequence approximately 1,000 samples, taken strategically throughout the range of moose in Wyoming. The researchers will perform statistical analyzes of the data, including assessments regarding the presence of the CWD protein in individual moose and geographic assessments.

Alien earthworms expand their reach and impact on forest ecosystems

Non-native earthworms cause a cascade of effects in the ecosystem. These exotic earthworms rapidly consume organic matter as they burrow into soils, accelerating decomposition and nutrient loss. This results in changes to 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, wetter world, their habitats and numbers are likely to grow faster and faster.

researchers of the University of Minnesota have been exploring the invasion and ecosystem impacts of exotic earthworms in Minnesota forests for more than a decade. Recently, they expanded their research to even colder climates. In 2019, after several years of intensive earthworm studies in the Swedish Arctic, they began to examine the introduction, dispersal, and ecological impacts of European earthworms in Alaska.

They found that, in Alaska, the active invasion and spread of earthworms occurs through many different types of human activities, such as gardening, fishing, and road building. Ongoing climate change will likely prompt the survival and further spread of earthworms in northern and interior Alaska soon. Considering the massive ecological cascades that exotic earthworms cause in soil carbon and nutrient cycling, understanding the dynamics of earthworm invasion should be a key component of future climate-related conservation efforts in boreal and temperate forest ecosystems.

Extension assistance with feral hog reduction project and educational programs

With at least 3.5 million feral hogs, Texas has the largest feral hog population in the United States. Wild boar numbers and range continue to increase due to high reproductive rates and a lack of natural predators. Wild pigs cause significant damage to crops, livestock, pastures, fields, fences, roads, ponds, streams, and rivers, as well as wildlife populations and their habitat. Research indicates that losses to field crops alone exceed $205 million annually, while total agricultural damage likely exceeds $230 million annually. Feral pigs pose a considerable public health risk as a reservoir of disease for wildlife, livestock, and humans. Texas landowners spend an estimated $7 million or more annually on wild boar control and damage mitigation.

Texas A&M The AgriLife Extension Service and Wildlife Extension Services conducted educational outreach activities to assist agricultural producers and landowners with the reduction and elimination of feral hogs and provided producers and owners with the necessary tools to facilitate reducing feral pigs themselves. Efforts reached 1.9 million people between 2017 and 2019 and resulted in reduced damage to crops, livestock, and agricultural property following the removal of nearly 90,000 feral pigs for a total economic benefit of $40.5 million since 2017.

Top image: Bull elk in fall in Wyoming. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

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