The disease has already infected deer herds south of the park in Wyoming and to its north in Montana, posing a threat to the park’s vast herds of elk and deer. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has raised concerns that the disease may also pose a risk to humans who hunt and eat infected deer or elk.
A deer can be infected for 18 months without displaying symptoms. An outbreak of chronic wasting disease in a herd could be deadly to the entire group, as prions are shed in urine and faeces, and can remain in soil for years, infecting other animals. But despite Yellowstone’s abundant elk and deer populations, no cases of the disease have been detected in the park so far.
Researchers from Penn State University, the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service believe the park’s 10 wolf packs may hold the key. They hope to support the idea that predators can be used to manage the disease.
“Yellowstone in the US is the only place we can see if this is working,” said Dr Ellen Brandell, who is leading the project, because of the overlap between high elk and wolf populations and chronic wasting disease cases nearby.
The park is home to 10 wolf packs and Dr Brandell believes the predators may be able to target and kill sick deer before the illness is detected by humans. “They are quite unsuccessful at hunting so they’ll take the weakest ones – that’s exactly the type of cue you want a predator to pick up on,” she said.
Dr Brandell said researchers were sampling the carcasses of deer and elk which had been killed by wolves.
The preliminary research suggests that the absence of chronic wasting disease cases in the park may be evidence that their theory is correct.