Exploring chronic wasting disease

Sophomores delve into heated subject matter for final exam

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— Steamboat Springs High School sophomores explored the Catamount elk habitat as a basis for forming hypotheses about the impact local elk populations will experience from subdivision development and chronic wasting disease.

"I guess I never really thought about how large the impact is and how quickly (chronic wasting disease) is spread," said Jessica Vernon, a high school sophomore. "It's kind of discouraging because they don't know a lot about it."

Vernon said through her studies she discovered that chronic wasting disease is not a new disease but something that deer and elk had been found to have over the past 30 years. She said she is not sure killing numerous elk and deer is an appropriate solution.

By mass killing the elk and deer, there will still be deer and elk that have the disease, she said.

Biology teacher Charlie Leech said the Division of Wildlife's approach to dealing with the problem of chronic wasting disease is similar to the way the U.S. Forest Service is dealing with the beetle problem by thinning trees.

He said he is not sure if the officials plans to help the beetle epidemic or the outbreak of chronic wasting disease will work but wants his students to become their own investigators and think through the long-range effects of the changes in the elk and deer populations.

"Find out the facts and make up your own mind," Leech told his students.

In coming up with schematic ideas about the effects of chronic wasting disease, students mapped the Catamount area using the Orton Foundation's Geographic Mapping Systems program to locate the man-made structures within the elk's habitat in the Catamount area.

Elizabeth Matlack of the Orton Family Foundation said using the mapping program "helps students see things in another way."

She said she enjoyed seeing students make larger connections about the natural environment through the use of mapping and their work with community organizations.

"Students learn with people other than their peers. Students have to be responsible," she said.

Students also used databases from the DOW to determine the migration patterns and reproduction grounds of the elk in the Catamount area.

Combining the information from the GIS system and the DOW database, students could see on a larger scale challenges the elk and deer herds may be facing.

With additional homes constructed in the Catamount area, many students noted the migration patterns of the elk would be disrupted.

One group theorized that elk in Routt County will evolve overtime to be better suited to the local environment.

Sophomore Jeff Coates predicted that elk will evolve to have antlers that they can use to scoop snow to get grass and have thicker fur for warmth in the winter. He said when changes in the elk's habitat occur, the most adapted elk with survive.

Alex Lomas and his group members explained a genetic theory behind elk that contract chronic wasting disease. Elk that are primarily grass eaters, they explained, have a higher susceptibility of acquiring the disease by eating grass that has been contaminated by the urine or feces of another effected elk than elk that are primarily shrub eaters.

Lomas said he thought that elk that are grass eaters would come in contact with the disease more frequently and would over time acquire a greater resistance to the disease than the shrub eaters.

Lia Kozatch said she and her group had come to the conclusion chronic wasting disease is contracted through supplemental feed that contains fragments of ground up spinal cord and brain tissue.

She said if using the supplemental feed theory, it makes sense that elk being fed in contained areas would be more susceptible to the disease.

Students from all groups presented their theories Thursday as their final exam for their sophomore biology class.

Leech said the project was a challenge for students but a good opportunity to gain a better understanding about their local environment.

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