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TWS Annual Conference Travel Grant Recipient: Kayla Kauffman

At The Wildlife Society’s 2018 Annual Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, I attended the Mammals VI session of presentations. The presentations in this session focused on decision making for the management of free-ranging ungulates. All the presentations covered using science-based decision making and modeling to help with landscape level decisions. I chose this session because of my interest in how diseases affect ungulate populations and what management actions can be taken in the face of devastating diseases.

The session was kicked off by Waldemar Ortiz-Calo reviewing elk translocation techniques. He had done an analysis comparing soft and hard releases throughout North and Central America. In a hard release, animals are simply translocated and let go, while in a soft release, animals are acclimatized to the new area in a captive facility prior to being released. Overall, there was a lack of cohesion in the methods used for soft releases and they were used less commonly than hard releases. He recommended that guidelines be created for soft releases and that more effort was put into monitoring the relative success of different release techniques and individual success of animals that have been translocated.

The next couple of talks were focused on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Nathan Galloway started off the session going over his model on the impacts the CWD will have on the National Elk Refuge. CWD typically has a lower prevalence in elk, but it has not yet been seen in a population as concentrated as the one on the National Elk Refuge. The anticipatory model predicted that the population will fail to thrive at 7-23% CWD prevalence but that may be an underestimate long-term due to the same infected land being used every year and the concentration of the herd. It could also be an overestimate of the initial effect CWD will have since a fixed incident rate was used. The model will need to be updated over time, especially if there is a change in the harvest.

The influence of the “slow” PRNP haplotype on the distribution on CWD in white-tailed deer was the topic of the next talk given by Adam Brandt. The study specifically looked at the spread of CWD in northern Illinois and Wisconsin and compared the different haplotypes present in CWD hot zones and areas where CWD had not taken a stronghold on the population. The slow haplotype was found more commonly in areas with less CWD, indicating that it could be creating a genetic barrier that slows the spread of the disease. Of course, no animal is completely resistant to CWD, but when trying to slow the spread of CWD focusing on populations without the slow haplotype could potentially be a useful management strategy.

We then moved away from CWD to talk about spatial requirements of plains bison with Robert Ritson. He focused on the pointed question of why do we have one of the animals with the highest spatial requirements in the smallest reserves? In comparing bison herds, he found that available space was not a significant predictor of home range size, and that latitude, elevation, precipitation, NDVI, distance from roads, and sex were better predictors. These spatial requirements are important to consider in future bison conservation efforts that reintroduce animals to different areas.

The session wrapped up with a final CWD talk given by Scott Peters reviewing the lessons learned in Ohio from four years of CWD management. Ohio’s CWD management plan transitioned from passive to active surveillance in areas surrounding the first detection of CWD on a deer farm. Other steps were the banning of supplemental feeding, removing carcasses of deer hit by cars, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife beginning to aid deer farmers in the recovery of escaped animals. All of those actions added up to a substantial amount of effort. Did it pay off? Well, CWD has been spreading to new game farms from which there are a huge number of escapes, but it has still not been detected in the wild. However, despite a huge investment by the agency to get them to do so, compliance by hunters to turn in samples is only 15-30%.

Given that I study wildlife disease, the two modeling CWD talks about the National Elk Refuge and the PRNP haplotype were the most interesting to me. It was beneficial to hear professionals in the field talk about planning and modeling in the face of great uncertainty about how CWD will affect a population. The entire conference was an incredible opportunity for professional development and growth. I am grateful for the WY-TWS helping to make that possible with the Student Travel Grant and look forward to attending the conference and being a part of TWS for years to come.