University of Calgary study examines relationship between elk, cattle and disease

MODEL IDEA Computer modelling will help account for environmental 
factors in diseases passing between cattle and wildlife

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Both bovines, and often both sharing the same pasture. The extent to which elk and cattle also share disease is the subject of a study spearheaded by the University of Calgary.

“We always tend to study diseases in cows or diseases in wildlife but not often diseases that are shared amongst those species,” said Dr. Karin Orsel, a cattle veterinarian and an assistant professor in the faculty of veterinary medicine. She said agent-based modelling will account for the complexities of environment to track disease transmission, building on data gathered since 2009 by graduate student Mathieu Pruvot.

The project is funded by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency. ALMA and Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions funded the initial study. The data gathered on cattle, elk and disease movement is from the Southwest Alberta Montane Research Program, which gathered cattle data from ranchers.

Orsel said instead of just tracking the movements of elk and cattle, the agent-based modelling system will be able to include things like terrain, habitat, elevation and other information about the ecosystem. This should be able to show if cattle need to interact directly with wildlife like elk for disease transfer to happen, or if simply passing through the same field is enough.

The computer modelling will get underway in March when a post-doctoral researcher will join the team.

“I think we would like to get a better understanding, if there are chances of disease being spread from one species to another… it can go both ways, but the better we understand how diseases move from one population to the other, the better opportunities we have to either protect our wildlife or protect our cattle from getting an infection from the other species,” Orsel said.

Common diseases

Diseases the group is looking at include infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, bovine viral diarrhea, neosporosis, Johne’s disease and liver fluke. “The diseases that we’ve chosen are diseases that are very common in our cattle,” Orsel said, noting they’re known as “production-limiting diseases.” The diseases include viruses, bacteria and parasites. “They all go from one species to another in a different way,” she said.

The study could end up showing there’s no reason to worry — or it could help ranchers implement ways to minimize interaction between cattle and the wildlife. Orsel said the post-doctoral researcher will work on the agent-based modelling for about a year and a half. She’s hoping disease transmission will be a continuing theme of her research program.

Dr. Reynold Bergen, the science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council, said there’s some potential synergies between the topic of Orsel’s study and the research council. He said he’d heard of Orsel’s study though wasn’t familiar with the details. He said the research council is interested in developing a national production-limiting disease surveillance program that will likely have opportunities to collaborate with similar wildlife programs. “The places where cattle are raised are also really good environments for wildlife and other biodiversity,” he said.

The grant from ALMA for the study is $145,000. CEO Gordon Cove said in an email part of his organization’s mandate is to fund scientific research that drives innovation in the meat and livestock industry. It also helps fulfil their commitment to the One Health Roadmap, which Cove said is important to the industry as it combines human and animal health as well as the interaction of the environment. “This is especially important with this project. Wild animals interact in the same environment as livestock and in some cases diseases can be transmitted to each other. It is important to understand how this happens and how disease mitigation can be achieved,” he said.

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