New & Ongoing Projects

Prions in Plants: Defining the Risks

Investigators: Joel A. Pedersen, Departments of Soil Science and Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding:  US Geological Survey
Expected Completion:  September 30, 2019

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs; prion diseases) are a family of invariably fatal neurodegenerative diseases that afflict a variety of mammalian species after a long incubation period (months to years). Animal TSEs have been a major concern to food safety since recognition in the 1990s that BSE can transmit to humans, presumably through consumption of BSE-infected meat. Of present concern to public health and food safety is CWD, the only TSE known to affect free-ranging species (wildlife). Along with an expanding geographical distribution, CWD prevalence in current epizootics is increasing and has been reported at 80% in some captive herds, including one in WI, and >50% in a free-ranging herd in WY. In environments likely to be contaminated with CWD, vegetation is ubiquitous. Plants absorb a variety of substances from soil, ranging from nutrients to contaminants. Plants may serve as a conduit between CWD-contaminated soils and naïve deer hosts. Understanding uptake of prions in plants is critical to managing CWD and devising measures that interrupt disease transmission cycles. Moreover, as CWD continues to increase in both distribution and prevalence, other species will increasingly be exposed to CWD prions. Our initial “proof-of-principle” studies have established that multiple plant species are capable of prion uptake, accumulation, and transmission of infectivity to mammalian hosts, but we have yet to fully understand the true environmental, human and animal health risks prion contaminated plants pose. Here, we plan to characterize the biological processes, conditions, and mechanisms that allow for “optimal” prion contamination of plants, their persistence and fate in plant tissues, and bioavailability in plant species commonly consumed by cervids.

Effects of Climate Change on Plague Exposure Pathways and Resulting Disease Dynamics

Investigators: Michael D. Samuel, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding:  Department of Defense
Expected Completion: January 31, 2019

Periodic outbreaks of sylvatic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, has had near catastrophic impacts on prairie dogs and the endangered black-footed ferret. Although human plague cases in the U.S. are relatively infrequent, the disease can be fatal, and its occurrence generates considerable public concern and media attention. Sylvatic plague is relevant to the Department of Defense (DOD) as prairie dogs, ground squirrels and other susceptible rodents are present on military installations in several western states, and the occurrence of plague has curtailed military exercises in the past. Furthermore, plague still occurs in many parts of the world where troops might be deployed, and Y. pestis has the potential to be developed as a biological weapon. Arthropod-borne diseases, like plague, are thought to be particularly sensitive to local climate conditions, and expected changes in temperature and humidity over the next several decades will likely increase the eastern and northern expansion of plague outbreaks in wildlife. Through a combination of field and laboratory work, along with data-driven modeling, we will evaluate the potential effects of climate change on plague exposure pathways in prairie dogs and other rodents, and provide guidance to DOD partners regarding the potential for future outbreaks. We will also validate the use of an orally-delivered sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) for use as a management tool to prevent outbreaks.

Determining habitat characteristics and causes of reproductive failure in Wisconsin’s population of the Federally Endangered Kirtland’s warbler

Investigators: Anna Pidgeon, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: USDA McIntire-Stennis
Expected Completion:  December 31, 2018

The Kirtland’s warbler, an Endangered Species, is a ground-nesting bird, that until recently was known to breed only in lower Michigan, in dense young Jack pine stands.  Since 2007 this species has nested in Wisconsin. We propose to collect key information about habitat selection at multiple scales, about nest predators, and about post-fledging juvenile survival and habitat use, with the ultimate goal of identifying those tree species and associated timber management practices that can contribute to both economic return from the forest and habitat that sustains Kirtland’s Warblers over the long term.

Understanding the Nesting Phenology of Grassland Birds Under a Changing Climate

Investigators:  Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding:  US Geological Survey
Expected Completion:  June 30, 2017

It is widely recognized that grassland obligate birds are declining faster than any other bird community in the Upper Midwest (Sauer et al. 2008). In addition, almost 40% of the species on the PIF continental Watch List because of declining trends or high threats breed in the prairie biome (Rich et al. 2004). Continental and regional population declines are mirrored in Wisconsin (Sauer et al. 2008) with species like Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and others declining by 50 – 90% since 1970. Within the conservation community there is growing recognition that species densities and reproductive performance are sensitive to habitat variables at patch and landscape scales (Ribic et al. 2009), but many of these grassland landscapes are increasingly modified by human land use. Contemporary grasslands in the eastern portion of the central Great Plains consist of areas typically associated with agriculture (e.g., hayfields, pastures) (Sample et al. 2003), but even these “surrogate” grasslands are disappearing. In the Midwest U.S., between 1800 and 1992, pasture and hay acreage peaked in the 1930s and declined steadily since (Herkert et al. 1996). In the Northeastern U.S., many grasslands such as the Hempstead Plains (once > 24,000 ha) have been reduced by 99%; a result of housing sprawl (Vickery and Dunwiddie 1997).

In addition to changing land use, grassland birds also will have to deal with a changing climate. The 2010 State of the Birds Report found a high probability that declines in grassland birds will be exacerbated by climate change, and more than half of grassland birds are expected to face additional pressures because of climate change. Many prairie ecosystems are in regions that are flat, and because the velocity of climate change (km year-1) is greater along latitudinal than altitudinal gradients (Dobrowski et al. 2013), it is likely that lowland prairies will experience rapid changes in future climate conditions. How grassland birds will respond to this future climatic variability is largely unknown. However, Skagen and Adams (2012) found that clutch size, nest survival, and productivity all increased with higher seasonal precipitation, but extreme precipitation events depressed daily survival of nests of Lark Buntings (Calamospiza melanocorys).

Changing environmental conditions also affect agricultural practices. One specific practice, hay harvest, is known to negatively impact grassland bird productivity. Understanding how the timing of these practices are changing in relation to potential changes in grassland bird breeding phenology will be useful in updating current management guidelines (Sample and Mossman 1997). The objective of this project is to investigate the potential effects of climatic variability and agricultural land-use practices on nesting success of grassland birds.

Oral Vaccines and Delivery Methods for Controlling Disease in Bats

Investigators: Jorge Osorio, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey (National Wildlife Health Center)
Expected Completion:  June 30, 2017

The current spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS), caused by the psychrophilic fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), across eastern North America has decimated bat populations with mortality rates reaching 90-100% in some hibernacula. This emerging disease has significant ecologic and economic impacts. Bats also hold significant public health importance as natural reservoirs for zoonotic viral diseases. Oral vaccination has a proven track record in controlling specific diseases of wildlife. Our goal of this study is to develop effective vaccines and methods of vaccine delivery to free-ranging bats that can be applied to numerous diseases, particularly WNS. Specifically we will: Assess the delivery of topically delivered recombinant poxviruses through various vaccine vehicles (e.g. paste, powder) to several bat species; Assess immunogenicity of novel RCN-vectored broad-spectrum lyssavirus vaccine constructs; Evaluate bat immune responses during hibernation using rabies vaccine as a research tool; and Identify fungal antigens and virulence factors and determine their vaccine potential for WNS.

Exploration of Protective Skin Fungi and Suppressive Soils for Control of White-nose Syndrome (WNS) in Bats

Investigators: Tony L. Goldberg, School of Veterinary Medicine, Pathobiological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey (National Wildlife Health Center)
Expected Completion: August 30, 2019

The sudden and widespread mortality associated with WNS has never been seen among any of the more than 1,100 species of bats worldwide, and this mortality event may represent the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife caused by infectious disease in recorded history. The disease is caused by a recently described species of fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes a severe skin infection that is hallmark of the disease. This study will investigate the potential of native skin flora of bats to protect their host against Pd through either direct inhibition or by activating a beneficial innate immune response. We additionally propose to investigate microbial communities and other abiotic factors from bat hibernacula in Europe and North America where bats have persisted in the presence of Pd that may serve to limit environmental reservoirs of pathogenic fungus in cave soil. Through this approach, we hope to initiate development of mitigation strategies to reduce the impacts of WNS by both reducing the severity of skin infection caused by Pd and by diminishing environmental reservoirs of fungus that contribute to amplification of pathogen and initiation of infections.

Fitting the Climate Lens to Grassland Bird Conservation: Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability using Demographically-informed Species Distribution Models

Investigators: Benjamin Zuckerberg, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey (NE Climate Science Center)
Expected Completion:  June 30, 2016

The large-scale conversion of prairie from cropland has been the leading cause of prairie loss in the U.S. and Canada, and has led to the original prairie ecosystem being one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. The degradation and decline of this ecosystem has been detrimental to its fauna, and grassland birds have decline more than any other bird group in the past 35-40 years. The 2010 State of the Birds Report found a high probability that declines in grassland birds will be exacerbated by climate change, and more than half of grassland birds are expected to face additional pressures because of climate change. Because future climate projects suggest a higher likelihood for drought and higher temperatures in many prairie systems, suggesting that demographic relationships can be used to quantify reproductive performance of grassland birds due to climate change. The project goal is to develop a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA) framework for identifying demographic sensitivities of grassland birds to past and future climate variability, thereby providing guidance on the future management and selection of grassland bird conservation areas.

Range-wide Assessment on the Impacts of Changing Climate on the Endangered, Migratory Kirtland’s Warbler Population 

Investigators:  Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey (Science Support Partnership Program)
Expected Completion:  June 30, 2016

The federally endangered Kirtland’s warbler has stabilized over the past 5 years at nearly double the population goal of the species recovery plan. However, understanding and assesses the threat of climate change on Kirtland’s warbler will be an important component in a defensible delisting decision for this species. Of primary concern is the impact of changing climate patterns on the species narrow breeding and winter ground habitat. Besides the impact on habitat there could be direct impacts to the birds from climate based changes in phenology. The objectives of this project are to: 1) develop explicit spatial models predicting potential habitat shifts on winter and breeding areas and 2) develop a population viability assessment by linking survivorship and productivity to climate and habitat changes. Project results will be incorporated into the Conservation Plan currently under development.

Uptake of Prions Into Plants

Investigators: Joel Pedersen, Department of Soil Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey – National Wildlife Health Center
Expected Completion:  June 30, 2016

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are a family of invariably fatal neurodegenerative diseases that afflict a variety of mammalian species. Animal TSEs have been a major concern to food safety since recognition in the 1990s that BSE can transmit to humans through the consumption of infected meat. An additional health concern is CWD, which affects wildlife in the deer family. The risk of CWD to non-cervid species, including other wildlife and humans, is largely unknown. In environments likely to be contaminated with CWD, vegetation is ubiquitous and these plants absorb a variety of substances from soil, ranging from nutrients to contaminants. Recent experiments have confirmed that plants have the capability for uptake of prions. The goals of this project are assess uptake of prions into plant species commonly consumed by deer, measure prion infectivity within various plant tissues, and to determine the mechanism of prion uptake into plants.

The Impact of Sylvatic Plague Vaccine (SPV) Application to Prairie Dog Colonies and Other Small Rodent Populations

Investigators: Jorge Osorio, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey – National Wildlife Health Center, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Expected Completion: August 31, 2017

Recent laboratory studies have shown that an oral sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) delivered via baits provides protection in prairie dogs. Other small rodents, such as deer mice and grasshopper mice, have already been shown to consume baits in pilot studies and these small rodents are likely to become vaccinated. These rodents are also considered to be a part of the enzootic reservoir for plague. Both laboratory and field studies are needed to determine the impact o SPV on small rodent populations and on plague outbreaks. This project will determine if and how SPV application to prairie dog colonies affects other small rodents and if other sciurids would be similarly protected from plague.

Evaluating the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area as a Grassland Bird Conservation Area

Investigators: Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Funding: US Geological Survey (Science Support Partnership Program)
Expected Completion: December 31, 2015

Restoring and protecting Grassland Bird Conservation Areas (GBCA) is especially difficult in Wisconsin because most of the existing grassland bird habitat is on private land. Since the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative grasslands plan relies so heavily on the GBCA concept, WBCI and the Midwest Coordinated Bird Monitoring Partnership (MCBM) have determined that evaluating the GBCA concept is essential and have undertaken a collaborative effort to build an evaluation plan that works in an adaptive manner. The objective of this project is to design and implement an evaluation program for the WBCI strategic grassland implementation plan. This evaluation plan will test assumptions behind GBCAs and allow for annual tracking of bird populations and habitat work within the Star Prairie and Erin Prairie BCAs and the Western Prairie focal landscape. This information will allow the Western Prairie partner group to adapt conservation efforts over the life of the project within a strategic habitat conservation framework. Short-term goals are to evaluate bird population goals within the Western Prairie focal landscape and the Star Prairie and Erin Prairie BCAs and set a baseline for tracking habitat change across focal landscapes and within BCAs over a set time period. This information will be used to evaluate the role of program development (Farm Bill, pasture, public restorations) within the BCAs against broader landscape changes. This project is the start of a 10 year project to (1) better understand density and productivity relationships between focal species and habitat configuration at the BCA and landscape scale (county or multiple counties), (2) evaluate assumptions behind the Grassland Bird Conservation Area concept including the role/value of the core and the configuration of habitat patches around the core within the BCA, (3) explore the relationship between habitat change in the larger focal landscape matrix and bird populations within the BCAs, and (4) meet goals in the St. Croix Wetland Management District’s CCP to assess migratory bird populations and use the information to strategically restore and acquire grasslands and wetlands.

Understanding the Importance of the Landscape Scale for Wildlife Management in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Developing Best Practices for Archiving Research Data

Investigators: Christine A. Ribic, USGS, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Funding: US Geological Survey (Science Support Partnership Program)
Expected Completion: December 31, 2015

We are working collaboratively with the US Forest Service Northern Research Station to (1) evaluate two long-term projects: amphibian use of ephemeral ponds and wetlands within forested systems and beaver colony activity along trout streams and (2) investigate archiving and presentation of data sets used for analysis and high impact data collections. For the long-term projects, we will evaluate the datasets and determine additional environmental and spatial variables required to address management concerns. Once evaluation is completed, we will retrieve identified environmental (e.g., water quality, climate data) and spatial (e.g., surrounding land cover/use of surrounding landscape) data and incorporate all data into a GIS. We will calculate landscape metrics identified in the conceptual model and analyze both data sets.

Besides the data used in the analysis, high impact USFS data collections will be archived. We will work with the US Forest Service to develop protocols and standards for archiving research data collected by the US Forest Service Research & Development branch. The primary focus of this work is on historical data collected on the Experimental Forest System, with additional sub-projects coming from any of the Research Stations or the International Institute of Tropical Forestry. We propose to process the historical record of at least seven Experimental Forests, and identify at least 15 data sets for archiving. Formal metadata will be created to document each data set, along with other descriptive material as appropriate for the particular data set. As appropriate, we will also engage in the administrative deposit activities associated with an OAIS-compliant data repository.