Young elk in drug test
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
February 22, 2013
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is taking first steps to gauge the effectiveness of a vaccine for chronic wasting disease in elk.
The vaccine, developed collaboratively by three Canadian infectious disease centers, is being tested on 25 elk calves transported from Game and Fish’s South Park feedground to the Thorne-Williams Wildlife Research Unit in Wheatland. Another 25 elk calves taken from the feedground will be left at the facility unvaccinated as a control group, said Terry Kreeger, the state wildlife veterinarian.
“These guys are in pens and those pens have been used for CWD research for decades,” Kreeger said.
“Just living in these pens, they’ll pick up the disease. The hope is that the vaccinated ones will live a lot longer. The longer they live, the more offspring they will have in the wild and the better it is for the population.”
Chronic wasting disease, which causes weight loss, listlessness, loss of body control and eventually death, has never been detected in Jackson Hole but affects elk and deer herds in eastern and central Wyoming. In 2012, it was detected for just the second time west of the Continental Divide in the state.
Because it’s a prion disease — neither bacterial or viral — it causes no immune system response, which complicated the development of a vaccine, Kreeger said. Lab researchers, he said, were able to “trick” the immune system into developing an antibody response.
“It’s the first vaccine for CWD,” Kreeger said. “It’s never been tested on elk before. It’s been done in transgenic mice. You use mice as a model, and this is the next logical step.”
It will take three to four years, Kreeger said, just to determine if the vaccine will have any effectiveness against CWD in elk.
Similar research using the same vaccine with deer is currently under way in Colorado.
If the vaccine is determined to be effective, Game and Fish then will have to devise a way to deliver it to wild elk. The vehicle, Kreeger said, will most likely be a compound that can be taken orally and mixed in with feed.
“For rabies, they literally flew over areas with airplanes dropping it out,” he said.
It will be years before Game and Fish and other state wildlife agencies know if they have an effective tool against CWD. There’s no known cure, and the state’s current approach to management is based on a monitoring program whose funding was cut drastically last year.
Conservation groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition believe CWD will occur at a higher-than-usual contraction rate if it reaches congregated animals on the National Elk Refuge and Northwest Wyoming’s 23 feedgrounds. As a result, there have been calls for the phaseout of supplemental feeding.
“There’s a problem with trying to get an effective vaccine for game farms: Wyoming doesn’t have game farms,” Lloyd Dorsey, the coalition’s Wyoming representative, said in an email.
“CWD is spread by infected wild deer and elk, which will be impossible to vaccinate,” Dorsey said. “Wildlife managers already know the best tool to mitigate the prevalence of CWD in wild herds: Don’t unnaturally concentrate elk and deer by feeding them.”
Kreeger called the vaccine a “first step.”
“It’s promising in the regard that it’s the first time that we have a tool,” the wildlife veterinarian said. “We’ve had nothing in the past. No one has been able to stop it and no one has been able to manage it.”