December 13, 2014
Yellowstone Wildlife Health
It's an exotic name, but it represents several growing risks
close to home. Zoonotic diseases
are those that can be transferred from animals to humans, such as brucellosis, hantavirus, and plague. A program in Yellowstone
monitors wildlife for these diseases, as well as others that don't affect
humans but have potential to decimate Park wildlife populations.
The Yellowstone Park Foundation started funding the
Yellowstone Wildlife Health Program (YWHP) in 2007 to address wildlife disease
concerns in the Park.
The team is currently focused on four serious
diseases that pose a risk to wildlife and humans.
Yellowstone Wildlife Biologist John Treanor, explained that
the YWHP took a "systems
approach" to wildlife health, which was recommended by more than 60
wildlife professionals who attended the program’s organizational workshop in
"We are working to understand the interconnected factors,
such as population size, land use, and environmental conditions that influence
wildlife health," said Treanor.
The Big Four
The Wildlife Health Program monitors diseases through various
methods like radio telemetry, mark and recapture, and screening biological samples such as blood. The team is currently focused on four serious
diseases that pose a risk to wildlife and humans:
is found in elk and bison, and is transmittable to domestic cattle and
is a fungus causing death among amphibians worldwide, and is prevalent in Yellowstone's
Nose Syndrome (WNS) has already killed millions of bats in the
eastern half of the country, and is expected to continue spreading west.
is a zoonotic disease carried by rodents. In 2012, it killed three people in Yosemite
National Park, and it is
present in deer mice in Yellowstone.
Knowledge is Power
So what happens once the YWHP team has monitored and studied
an infectious disease?
In the case of zoonotic diseases, measures can be taken to
prevent exposure among Park employees and visitors. And while Park managers are hesitant to
interfere with natural processes among wildlife, armed with knowledge they can
take steps to mitigate disease effects. An
example would be to temporarily close a trail near a breeding site essential to
the reproduction of an imperiled species.
The science can also inform important, long-term management
decisions. For instance, the data
collected and analyzed in the YWHP brucellosis study resulted in the National
Park Service decision to not vaccinate bison—an effort that would have been very
expensive, invasive, and lengthy.
A Lab of Their Own
In 2008, funding from the
Yellowstone Park Foundation enabled the Park to create a state-of-the-art
diagnostic laboratory with specialized equipment and operational protocol to
ensure human safety. Treanor said that the
lab makes the program more efficient, too.
"We were sending samples to other laboratories that
cost thousands of dollars each year. Due to budget constraints, we needed to
limit our sample size for each study. With
our own lab, we can process more samples for less money," said Treanor.
Yellowstone is home to one of the
most intact remaining wildlife ecosystems. Therefore it is fitting that it should serve
as a site for the state-of-the-art research necessary to conserve wildlife for
future generations, while helping protect people from diseases carried by
Bison photo by Matt Ludin/Yellowstone Park Foundation. All other photos courtesy of NPS