Combating Chronic Wasting Disease

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WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK (KOTA TV) - Park officials at Wind Cave National Park are continuing their efforts to combat Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, affecting Elk populations.

A team of professionals are using a helicopter to net elk cows and collect biological samples to check for CWD. In addition, they are also attaching radio collars to the animals to better track the disease.

Currently, the park is home to roughly 230 elk which is about the maximum population they can sustain.

"We can sustain an 11 percent mortality rate," said Research Wildlife Biologist Glen Sargent. "Chronic Wasting Disease, in combination with mortality from things like road kills and mountain lion predation and the occasional losses to hunting outside the parks, we have been losing about 18-20 percent of the population per year."

CWD is caused by an abnormal protein, replicating and replacing normal ones leading the loss of brain functions. Elk with CWD can live several years with the disease before showing any signs all while transmitting it to other animals.

Greg Schroeder, Chief of Resource Management at Wind Cave National Park, says this is an important project.

"In 2016 we took a management action which was to reduce the number of elk inside the park and we are hoping that that reduction in the number of elk will help reduce the prevalence rate and allow more elk to survive," Schroeder said. "So this research will capture that effort to know if our management action was successful."

CWD is hard to deal with because the infectious proteins, called prions, are difficult to kill.

"They can withstand things that would normally sterilize surface - boiling, low temperature burning, chemical sterilants and those sorts of things," Sargent said. "The problem we run into with wild animal populations is that animals infected with Chronic Wasting Disease can deposit prions in the environment and they can stay there for years."

The effort to combat CWD started in 2016. They hope to collar and test 28 elk with their latest efforts.