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Diseases spread from wildlife pose risk to livestock

Photo: Mark Boyce U Alberta elk.jpg
The foothills of southwestern Alberta are home to wild elk as well as cattle on ranchlands — and when the species intermingle, the potential for disease to spread is higher, according to a new study.
Alberta biologists determine when and where disease transmission between elk and cattle is most likely to occur and develop prevention guidelines for ranchers.

In a new study, University of Alberta biologists determined that diseases transmitted from wildlife are a common threat to both livestock and people.

“One of the biggest risks to the livestock industry is the transmission of disease from wildlife to livestock,” said Mark Boyce, an ecologist in the university's department of biological sciences.

Boyce said the long list of diseases that occur between livestock and wildlife includes anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and many species of worms such as tapeworms and roundworms.

“In addition to infecting one another, many of the diseases that are shared by wildlife and livestock are zoonotic, meaning that they also can infect humans,” he noted.

Boyce said the foothills in the southwestern Alberta are home to wild elk as well as cattle on ranchlands — and when the species intermingle, the potential for disease to spread grows. A similar situation occurs in the western U.S., particularly in the Greater Yellowstone Area, where elk and bison intermingle with cattle herds.

The Alberta researchers used data gathered from elk with global positioning system (GPS) collars, combined with cattle management information from 16 cattle operations in southern Alberta, to identify locations and times where the probability of disease transmission is high.

According to the university, they found that the highest risk occurs in winter months, when livestock and elk are in the same pastures and use the same resources.

Based on their results, the researchers developed guidelines to help producers minimize the risk of infection.

“Livestock management that minimizes the risk of contact with wildlife will reduce the risk of disease transmission,” Boyce said. “This includes keeping cattle in pastures near farm buildings during winter and calving season.

“It is also important to keep mineral supplements and hay next to ranch buildings, again to reduce the contact between cattle and elk,” he added.

The study, “Integrating Livestock Management & Telemetry Data to Assess Disease Transmission Risk Between Wildlife & Livestock,” was published in Preventative Veterinary Medicine. It was led by doctoral student Mathieu Pruvot, supported by Boyce's lab. Marco Musiani from the University of Calgary and University of Alberta adjunct professor Margo Pybus were also collaborators.

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada and Shell Canada as well as the Alberta Conservation Assn. and Alberta Innovates.

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