1. Zoonotic pathogens can harm human health and well-being directly or by impacting livestock. Pathogens that spillover from wildlife can also impair conservation efforts if humans perceive wildlife as pests. Brucellosis, caused by the bacterium Brucella abortus, circulates in elk and bison herds of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and poses a risk to cattle and humans. Our goal was to understand the relative effects of climatic drivers, host demography, and management control programs on disease dynamics.
2. Using >20 years of serologic, demographic, and environmental data on brucellosis in elk, we built stochastic compartmental models to assess the influences of climate forcing, herd immunity, population turnover, and management interventions on pathogen transmission. Data were collected at feedgrounds visited in winter by free-ranging elk in Wyoming, USA.
3. Snowpack, hypothesized as a driver of elk aggregation and thus brucellosis transmission, was strongly correlated across feedgrounds. We expected this variable to drive synchronized disease dynamics across herds. Instead, we demonstrate asynchronous epizootics driven by variation in demographic rates.
4. We evaluated the effectiveness of test-and-slaughter of seropositive female elk at two feedgrounds. Test-and-slaughter temporarily reduced herd-level seroprevalence but likely reduced herd immunity while removing few infectious individuals, resulting in subsequent outbreaks once the intervention ceased. We simulated an alternative strategy of removing seronegative female elk and found it would increase herd immunity, yielding fewer infections. We evaluated a second experimental treatment wherein feeding density was reduced at one feedground, but we found no evidence for an effect despite a decade of implementation.
5. Synthesis and applications: Positive serostatus is often weakly correlated with infectiousness but is nevertheless used to make management decisions including lethal removal in wildlife disease systems. We show how this can have adverse consequences whereas efforts that maintain herd immunity can have longer-term protective effects. Climatic drivers may not result in synchronous disease dynamics across populations unless vital rates are also similar because demographic factors have a large influence on disease patterns.