CWD-Sniffing Dogs and Other Promising New Disease Detection Methods
Studies are ongoing, but these tests could bring us closer to identifying chronic wasting disease in live deer
Hunters are still celebrating the recent passage of the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, which authorized a total of $70 million per year through 2028 to be split evenly between disease research and state response. But even before these dollars have hit the ground, studies on new disease detection methods are advancing.
Our partners at the National Deer Association have just highlighted three such studies that show we may soon be able to detect CWD-causing prions outside of animal tissue—including in scrapes, at feeders, and in deer feces—just a reliably as we can with tests on the lymph nodes of harvested deer.
The testing technology in all three studies is known as RT-QuIC (pronounced “R.T. Quick”), and it is different than the two laboratory methods that could be used on samples from your deer.
In the first study, a researcher from the Mississippi State University Deer Lab sampled 99 scrapes in a CWD zone in southwest Tennessee, and 55% of them tested positive for CWD prions using RT-QuIC. This is the first study to confirm CWD prions in scrapes.
The second, an ongoing study out of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Prion Research and Outreach, makes use of previous evidence that prions are effectively held by stainless steel and glass. Researchers positioned “sentinels” made of these materials around feeders in a way that deer would touch them with their noses or mouths, then swabbed the surfaces and tested the swabs using RT-QuIC.
They’re seeing preliminary success: After running tests in three states on CWD-positive captive deer herds, CWD-positive wild populations, and a healthy captive herd as a control, RT-QuIC testing found CWD prions at approximately the same prevalence rate as the known CWD-positive rate in those populations.
Finally, researchers with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the Wildlife Futures Program have recently made the first-ever attempt to train dogs to sniff out the difference between the feces of healthy and CWD-positive deer.
Two Labrador retrievers and a Finnish spitz scent-trained in a controlled setting using samples of feces from deer in both the early and late stages of CWD infection, and in field testing these dogs alerted on eight out of 11 positive samples. They falsely alerted to negative samples, as well, but significantly more frequently on CWD-positive samples.
The CWD status of the samples was known in this case, but if dogs were to be employed in surveillance efforts in the future, RT-QuIC could be used to confirm the presence of CWD prions when a dog alerts.
This science and its implications are extremely cool, so we thought you should know about it. As NDA’s Lindsay Thomas Jr. says in his article, “Good news is scarce in the fight against chronic wasting disease,” so it’s nice to have some to share. Check out the full story at deerassociation.com.
Photo by Laura Roberts via Unsplash
Examining Alaska’s Biggest Oil Drilling Project in Decades
Breaking down the recent decision to approve the Willow oil project in Alaska, which also requires new habitat safeguards for the North Slope
This week, the Biden Administration approved a scaled-back version of a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision to greenlight the ConocoPhillips Willow project was announced on Monday, following many months of consultation with elected officials, local communities, Alaska Native leaders, and other stakeholders.
As a non-partisan conservation organization that supports collaborative solutions to complex natural resource management issues, the TRCP team feels a responsibility to guide hunters and anglers through the heated rhetoric around this announcement. Here’s our topline assessment of the decision to approve the biggest oil field in Alaska in decades, and what it could mean for important wildlife habitat in Northwest Alaska.
What Is the Willow Project and Where Would It Be Constructed?
Willow is currently the largest proposed oil drilling project on America’s public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the project could produce up to 576 million barrels of oil over the 30-year life of the project. At its peak, Willow could pump out up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 percent of all U.S. oil produced daily.
The Willow project would be constructed in the area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. At more than 23 million acres, this expanse is the nation’s single largest tract of undeveloped public land. The region is home to several Alaska Native villages and provides important habitat for caribou, between 80 and 90 species of birds, and polar and grizzly bears.
The NPR-A has been reserved for oil development for many decades, and also includes directives from Congress to ensure the maximum protection of fish and wildlife habitat for Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River area, and other areas designated by the Secretary of the Interior. Oil production was not economically feasible until 2015, and the vast landscape has remained mostly intact and wild.
What Is the Willow Project Decision and How Has It Changed?
The Department of the Interior approved a scaled-down version of the Willow project, denying two of the five proposed drill sites. By reducing the project’s drill pads and surface infrastructure, the DOI is decreasing Willow’s footprint on public lands while ensuring the project remains economically viable. This balance is important because ConocoPhillips has held lease rights in the NPR-A since the late 1990s, and the leases are regarded as binding agreements. If the Interior Department had not approved Willow, the energy company could have sued the federal government and, if successful, been awarded billions in damages. Then, after a costly legal battle, ConocoPhillips could still have been allowed to drill.
Forced by a federal judge to address the flaws in the previous administration’s environmental analysis of Willow, the Bureau of Land Management and Interior used this review process to craft a solution that respects the existing leases while mitigating the project by securing additional safeguards for important habitat.
According to a statement by the Department, ConocoPhillips has agreed to surrender rights to 68,000 acres of its existing leases, mostly in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. The reduced project scope will decrease the project’s freshwater use and potential impacts to caribou calving grounds and migration routes.
How Much Support Is There for the Willow Project?
There is fairly broad political support for the project across Alaska, including among the bipartisan congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the Alaska Federation of Natives. In the North Slope region, support has been described as a “majority consensus,” although notable opposition and concern about subsistence impacts have been expressed across the region and particularly from Nuiqsut, the community closest to the proposed development.
Environmental groups and climate activists are deeply concerned about the expected greenhouse gas emissions from the project. The BLM’s analysis estimates that using the oil produced by the Willow project would result in 239 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.
What Does the Willow Project Mean for Wildlife Habitat in the Northwest Arctic?
The Department’s Willow decision reduces the amount of surface infrastructure within ecologically sensitive areas, such as yellow-billed loon nesting areas, caribou calving grounds, and caribou migration routes. Although scaled down, the Willow project still carries impacts to habitat, wildlife and subsistence that should be minimized. For example, the approved version of the project has 21,114 fewer acres of caribou disturbances than the project proponent’s plan. Yet even with mitigation measures in place, some unavoidable impacts to caribou would occur.
Willow would also result in 532 acres of lost wetlands, 619 acres of potential polar bear habitat disturbances, and 17,037 acres of disturbances for birds. Durable mitigation, monitoring, and enforcement will be critical to ensuring development near Willow’s drill sites is least impactful to the region’s unique wildlife resources and hunting traditions.
What Other Conservation Measures Is the Biden Administration Considering in the Northwest Arctic?
In tandem with the Willow decision, the Interior Department recently announced a new public process to consider additional safeguards for more than 13 million acres of important habitat within the NPR-A for grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. These safeguards would be focused on the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas. The NPR-A protections would bar development from landing in the reserve near Teshekpuk Lake.
The department also plans to “complete protections of the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from any future oil and gas leasing” by withdrawing 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from development.
What Is TRCP’s Take on the Willow Decision?
Our team at the TRCP supports the transition to cleaner energy, and we know that will take some time. Domestic oil production efforts—assuming the impacts to wildlife and local residents can be minimized—can be valuable bridges while we continue to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
While this decision is far from perfect, as few real-world outcomes are, the TRCP believes the BLM attempted to thread a needle on the Willow project in working to offset impacts with conservation gains. Now, the TRCP calls on the administration to follow through with its commitments to increasing conservation measures and subsistence safeguards in the region and to do so in a timely manner.
Video: Where Private Land Creates Public Hunting Opportunities
If you use state walk-in access programs to hunt or fish on private land, you’ve already benefited from a key Farm Bill program
Join TRCP’s Aaron Field and Ian Nakayama as they hunt private farm lands in Minnesota thanks to the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This one-of-a-kind access program complements the full suite of habitat improvement programs that invest federal Farm Bill dollars at the local level. In the case of the VPA-HIP, there is a nine-to-one return on this investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.
In the video, Greg Hoch with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Craig Lingen with the Wilkin Soil and Water Conservation District share information about the importance and success of the VPA-HIP program in their state.
You can support strengthening this important public access program in the next Farm Bill right now.
Eight Ways the President Wants Congress to Invest in Conservation Next Year
Here’s what the Biden Administration is prioritizing in its Fiscal Year 2024 budget request
The White House has released the president’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024, which contains some important line items for conservation. The document is meant to guide Congress as lawmakers begin to negotiate funding levels for the next fiscal year.
According to the proposal, the Biden Administration is focusing conservation investments in several key areas and agencies, in part to tackle climate change and address the biodiversity crisis.
Here are eight highlights that could affect hunters and anglers.
Another Bump for South Florida Water Quality
Notably, the president has prioritized a $15-million increase—and over $415 million total—to support restoration in the Everglades, one of our most unique and ecologically significant ecosystems. Hunters and anglers have been calling for full funding of Everglades projects since last fall. Take action here to add your voice.
A Milestone for Refuges
The White House is recommending that $624 million, or $83 million over FY23 enacted levels, go to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This would be the largest budget ever for management of these public lands, where access to hunting and fishing has grown substantially in recent years.
Steady Funding for Waterfowl Habitat
The administration also wants to sustain funding of $50 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, our nation’s most successful public-private partnership conservation program. Strong support for NAWCA could also be good news for grasslands, if lawmakers embrace the idea of a North American Grasslands Conservation Act, built on the NAWCA model, this year.
More Invasive Species Prevention
The budget includes over $57 million for aquatic invasive species prevention, an increase of $7.4 million. In July 2022, the TRCP worked with partners and leading outdoor recreation businesses to establish a new blue-ribbon commission to stop and reverse the spread of aquatic invasive species in the U.S. The commission will soon release a landmark report detailing ways for federal and state governments to help control and mitigate the spread of aquatic invasive species.
Consideration for Migration Corridors
The White House is requesting $3 million for the conservation and enhancement of migration corridors. This is an issue the TRCP has been intently focused on since the Department of the Interior’s Secretarial Order 3362 was signed in 2018.
Boosted Funding for Partners for Fish and Wildlife
The budget includes $80 million to support the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a nearly $6-million increase over FY23 enacted levels. This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program supports voluntary conservation on private lands, which will be a key focus of the America the Beautiful Initiative.
On-Farm Habitat Improvements
The budget provides $1.2 billion, or $208 million above the FY23 enacted level, to increase conservation adoption and farm income across privately owned land through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This funding helps support the historic investments for conservation provided in the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year.
Investing to Reach Climate Goals
Finally, the president’s budget boasts nearly $52.2 billion in governmentwide climate spending, a near 26-percent increase from FY23 enacted levels. This proposed funding would run the gamut from climate-smart conservation practices on private lands to drought mitigation and carbon market development, and it is intended to move the United States closer to achieving the climate goals outlined when Biden first came into office. The TRCP and our partner groups continue share the perspectives of sportsmen and sportswomen experiencing climate impacts and proposing solutions to the administration and Congress.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, appropriators in Congress will have the final say on spending levels for Fiscal Year 2024, a process now underway on Capitol Hill. The sporting and conservation communities are continually providing feedback on funding priorities and demand for programs on the landscape and look forward to building on these efforts in the year to come.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More