Opinion: Wolves, COVID-19 and other diseases | SteamboatToday.com

Opinion: Wolves, COVID-19 and other diseases

Eric Washburn
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

It’s not surprising that in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, those opposed to wolf restoration have pivoted from the now-debunked claims that wolves will “devastate” our elk and deer herds and livestock to trying to convince us that wolves will bring disease to Colorado.

For example, wolf restoration opponent Greg Walcher wrote a piece a few weeks ago that has been circulating around the state called “It’s dangerous to mess with Mother Nature.” In it, he claims that wolves will bring to Colorado diseases ranging from coronavirus to hydatid. 

Such claims can resonate with the public, especially at a time when COVID-19 is so much on everyone’s mind and some have even lost loved ones to the virus. So, I decided to do some research and contact experts in wildlife diseases to sort out fact from fiction.

After reading Walcher’s piece, Ellen Brandell, a wildlife disease ecologist at Penn State University who researches wolves in Yellowstone National Park, wrote to me saying that she and her colleagues are “horrified by his misinterpretation of their results and use of the current COVID-19 outbreak to create more fear generally, and around wolves in particular. As infectious disease and wolf experts let us set the record straight.

“Canine coronavirus has been found in dogs and wolves but is entirely unrelated to the current COVID-19 outbreak. Like all wildlife and domestic species, wolves are host to a range of pathogens and parasites, but your risk of getting crushed by a soda machine (about four deaths per year in the U.S.) are higher than any risk posed by wolves. The mentioned infections, including parvovirus, herpesvirus and coronavirus, are canine-specific viruses that are not known to transmit to humans. As was pointed out in the (Walcher) article, canine distemper virus can kill wolf pups, but it also affects other native species, such as coyotes, bears, and cougars. Prior to wolf reintroduction, other species in the Yellowstone ecosystem carried these pathogens; these species transmitted pathogens to wolves, which how the reintroduced wolves acquired them.

“Finally, it is important to clarify that Canadian wolves are of the same gray wolf subspecies that once occupied the Rocky Mountains. Wolves that once existed in Colorado would have acquired the same pathogens as those in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Many of these pathogens likely already exist in Colorado in coyotes, foxes, mesocarnivores and ungulates, and reintroduced wolves would be vaccinated and free of all ectoparasites prior to relocation, thus would not ‘introduce’ any infectious diseases.”

Walcher and other wolf opponents have also routinely claimed in print and on the radio that wolves are likely to infect people with hydatid disease. I had to look up hydatid disease, which apparently is a potentially serious, sometimes fatal, condition caused by tapeworms. Dogs, foxes, coyotes and wolves all can carry these tapeworms.

Through many decades of research on wolves, with scientists climbing into wolf dens, collecting and analyzing scat and darting and handling wolves, no wolf researcher has even contracted Hydatid disease. In fact, Dr. Krysten Schuler, wildlife ecologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s field investigation team, has written that they know of no known transmission of the hydatid tapeworm from a wolf to a human. Human infections from wolves is simply not a threat. 

Both sides in the wolf reintroduction debate should be encouraged to express legitimate arguments for and against the wolf restoration ballot initiative that we will vote on in November.  But scaremongering the public with misleading assertions about disease, especially at a time when we are all dealing with the potentially fatal threat of COVID-19, has no place in this debate. 

Eric Washburn is a fifth-generation Coloradan and passionate deer and elk hunter who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with his wife and two teenage sons, both of whom are big game hunters.

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