Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal brain disease affecting deer and elk. The effort to manage chronic wasting disease in deer and elk is taking
significant steps forward thanks to a partnership between researchers,
government experts, and American deer and elk farmers.
Researchers from Midwestern University, Colorado State University,
the Colorado State Department of Agriculture, and the United States
Department of Agriculture were part of a unique study aimed at managing
chronic wasting disease (CWD) in ranched elk in areas where the disease
is common in wild deer and elk.
‘The effort to manage chronic wasting disease in deer and elk is taking significant steps forward thanks to a partnership between researchers, government experts, and American deer and elk farmers.’
The project, first reported during the 59th AAVLD/USAHA annual
meeting in Greensboro, NC, received a major boost from deer and elk
farmers, including the North American Deer Farmers Association (NADeFA),
the North American Elk Breeders Association (NAEBA), and Whitetails of
Wisconsin (WOW). Over the past few years, the groups have supported
research into developing live animal tests - specifically relying on
samples collected during herd depopulations. What has been lacking,
until recently, is the application of those test developments towards
solving real world problems.
The project, headed by Midwestern University's Nicholas Haley focused on using conventional and experimental tests for
CWD to identify and remove infected animals from a large elk herd living
on thousands of acres of fenced property. The study provided a
substantial body of samples that could provide for more sensitive tests
than are currently available, but perhaps more importantly it has
allowed insight into the genetic association between infection and
With the help of his collaborators, Dr. Haley been able to examine
the links between infection and a number of genetic markers found in elk
known as microsatellites, using techniques commonly known as "DNA
fingerprinting" which assist in building a family tree for the ranch and
may prove useful in any number of other species as well. "I am time
and again fascinated with the wealth of genetic data we've been able to
collect," Dr. Haley said. "Imagine being able to predict which animals
may become infected next year, or identify branches of animals more
resistant to disease than others, and ultimately using that information
to manage the disease from purely an agricultural perspective."
The project would not be possible without the cooperation of deer
and elk farmers and their representatives, Dr. Haley says. "This
project has allowed the deer and elk farming industries to take
ownership of CWD management and play a critical and prominent role in
bringing it under control."
In areas where CWD is common, deer and elk farmers have the very
realistic ability to manage their animals by identifying desirable
traits and selectively breeding for them - in this case, resistance to
CWD. "What would take Mother Nature thousands of years to do, deer and
elk farmers can do in our lifetime," Dr. Haley suggests.
Although the concept of managing CWD on-site through live animal
testing and selective breeding is a relatively new one in the deer and
elk farming arena, Dr. Haley hopes that this project is able to
demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach, allowing
future work to build off of the novel findings and ultimately stop CWD
in its tracks.