Researchers Consider Selective Breeding To Solve Chronic Wasting Disease

Apr 12, 2018

Statewide Chronic Wasting Disease Distribution (All Species)
Credit Wyoming Game and Fish Department

Researchers are attempting to breed genetic resistance to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) into farmed deer and elk. CWD was once rare, but is now found in herds across the U.S. including Wyoming. It’s known for causing weight loss, lethargy, and eventually death

Midwestern University’s Nicholas Haley found certain alleles -- a mutated gene in deer -- makes them more resistant to CWD. Research was done on impacted deer farms. Haley said the short-term goal is to use selective breeding to reduce CWD prevalence on those farms. 

He said the long-term goal, though, "would potentially be going into these herds and finding the resistant animals and then using them to repopulate, potentially, areas that have had high levels of CWD."

And he says it’s worked before. A similar breeding method was used to rid sheep herds of scrapie.

“There was selective breeding towards those alleles and trying to encourage the propagation of those alleles in sheep herds. And over the past 15 years, scrapie in the United States has effectively been eliminated,” Haley said. 

There is skepticism about the strategy in wildlife organizations due to the lack of knowledge around CWD’s impact. There are other factors that could cause depopulation issues among cervids including lack of food or habitat issues. There’s also concern that breeding elk or deer with a resistant allele would only induce longer survival, rather than resistance.