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Sportsmen a Big Part of Healthy Wildlife

08/24/15 -- You may have heard the story. Sportsmen help wildlife because excise taxes on shooting equipment and license and tag fees predominately fund conservation efforts. Sportsmen and wildlife watchers also spend a lot of time in wild country, and their observations coupled with a highly trained wildlife veterinarian to interpret what they see is helping the Nevada Department of Wildlife monitor the health of its wildlife populations.

PODCAST: Spot Disease in Nevada’s Wildlife

When most of us think about a veterinarian, we picture a person in a white coat delivering our dog to us with a bandage around an injured paw. The picture that Peregrine Wolff, wildlife veterinarian for the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), paints of her job sounds a lot more like an episode of Crime Scene Investigators than your friendly neighborhood vet.

“Most of the patients that I see are dead and on the necropsy table, which is the animal form of an autopsy,” said Wolff. “It is my job to find out what the cause of death is for individuals, which may provide us with a sense of how the health of a specific population of wildlife is faring.”

Wolff brings an impressive amount of experience with her to Nevada. Her long list of jobs includes time as the wildlife veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the director of veterinary services and animal health at Walt Disney World in Orlando and the director of biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo. She began working for NDOW in 2009.

“As fortunate as Nevada is to have a wildlife veterinarian with Peri’s impressive credentials, she is a single individual and there are literally tens of thousands of individual wildlife in Nevada’s wild country” said Game Division Chief Brian Wakeling. “No one person can tend to them all.”

Wolff is quick to point to the hunters and anglers of the state as a big reason for the success of her program.

“Our sportsmen and women are some of the best eyes and ears on the ground because they’re out scouting. They know the animals and recognize normal behavior. Each year, they collect a large number of biological samples on our behalf and provide reports we follow up on,” she said.

She states that hunters or hikers who are just scouting or watching wildlife can be a big help by reporting anything out of the ordinary. “We want them to report to us if they see an animal that is behaving abnormally or is in very poor body condition. In our bighorn sheep herds we are always concerned about pneumonia. Common signs we see with this condition are lethargy, meaning having no energy, head shaking; or coughing. We have received reports from people in the field that have helped us detect disease outbreaks in everything from bighorn sheep to waterfowl.”

Wolff states that the biggest help that sportsmen bring to the health of the state’s wildlife is by collecting tissue samples. “Hunters help us tremendously,” she said. “Each year we ask them to collect biological samples for chronic wasting disease testing. CWD is a neurological disorder that ultimately results in the death of deer and elk. Currently Nevada is CWD free, but we test for it annually because the disease is present in Utah.”

She uses the collection programs for Nevada’s bighorn sheep populations as an example of the success between hunters and the Department.

“We are very grateful for bighorn sheep hunters that have helped us out. They’ve brought in samples of organs for testing. That’s how we found out that some of the herds have had some disease issues, but we were only able to do that because of the hunters that submitted the tissues.”

Wolff also reports that she occasionally gets concerned hunters contacting her about something they noticed while butchering their animal. Fortunately, she states that almost everything a hunter might see will not affect the meat. “Rarely do we encounter something that makes the meat unfit for consumption. If hunters cook their meat thoroughly, the food should be fine. Similar to eating beef or pork, we encourage those that prepare meals ensure that all game meat is properly cooked,” she said. “However if you do have concerns about something you find in a harvested animal then please contact the Department. Pictures are also very useful to help illustrate what you are seeing.”

She pointed to a few examples of things that might look concerning at first glance but are actually fairly harmless and do not affect the meat at all. “Papillomavirus infection in deer can cause big black lumps that tend to be around the face but can be seen anywhere on the body. They can cover a large area of the deer’s body but they have very little impact on the animal and they are only located on the skin, so even though there could be kind of an ick factor, the meat is perfectly normal.”

A deer in the wild with Papillomavirus infection

In waterfowl she points to a parasite named sarcocystis, commonly referred to as rice breast. “If you look at some of the pictures from more severe cases I can see why no one would want to eat that, but it’s not going to harm you and in most cases it’s not really impacting the animal either.”

Nevada’s wildlife populations are healthy and strong, with careful ongoing monitoring where needed.

“While veterinary science is essential, observation and data collection are equally important,” said Wakeling. “We need to understand how disease and herd health are influenced by management actions, but hunters and wildlife watchers provide the tools to ensure we maintain the diverse native wildlife for future generations.”

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