Study examines disease transmission risk between livestock and wildlife in Alberta

A new study by scientists in Alberta looks at the risk for disease transmission between wildlife and livestock and how it could be minimized.

Academics from the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta looked at a range of interactions between elk and cattle to better understand what may be the risk of disease transmission.

It's an especially important question in southern Alberta, where elk and cattle often mingle in ranch pastures.

There is a long list of pathogens that animals of different species can contaminate each other with in the right conditions. And the more the animals mix, the higher the threat, according to Dr. Mathieu Pruvot, who led the study. 

"There is no reason to be alarmed in the context of Alberta, but we know from other places that this type of interaction is a risk for disease transmission that can affect livestock production or wildlife conservation depending on the direction of transmission," said Pruvot in an email to CBC News.

Research into the overlap of diseases in animals has been going on in the province for years. Much of the work for this new study, published in the journal Preventive Veterinarian Medicine, was done in the foothills south of Calgary.

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The researchers took data from 16 cattle ranches and tracking information from 168 elk with GPS collars to measure when and where the two species were most likely to cross paths.

The highest risk is in winter months, when the elk retreat from the mountains to sneak a few mouthfuls of hay or a few licks of the salt blocks in the pastures.

"Livestock management that minimizes the risk of contact with wildlife will reduce the risk of disease transmission," said Mark Boyce, one of the University of Alberta experts who participated in the study.

"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.

Pruvot says at this point, there is no reason to recommend any particular measure, but he highlights that the research provides the tools for a scenario where action could need to be taken.

"There is always a concern about wildlife and disease transmission from wildlife to cattle," Karen Schmid, the research and production manager for Alberta Beef Producers, said. 

"I think it's important for land owners and cattle producers to be aware of what wildlife frequents their properties," Schmid said. 

"Wildlife tends to avoid people, but there are less people on the landscape and therefore livestock and wildlife freely intermingle," University of Calgary biologist Marco Musiani said.

The study also emphasized the value of cattle producers and wildlife biologists working together to address the questions of interaction between wildlife and livestock, and to continue monitoring the health of wildlife and livestock, and the shared grassland ecosystem, Pruvot added.