Evaluation of selective culling of infected individuals to control Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease
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Sustainable strategies to manage infectious diseases in threatened wildlife are still lacking despite considerable concern over the global increase in emerging infectious diseases of wildlife and their potential to drive populations to extinction. Selective culling of infected individuals will often be the most feasible option to control infectious disease in a threatened wildlife host, but has seldom been implemented or evaluated as a management tool for the conservation of threatened species. The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is threatened with extinction by an infectious cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). We assess the success of an adaptive management trial involving selective culling of infected Tasmanian devils to control DFTD. Demographic and epidemiological parameters indicative of disease progression and impact were compared between the management site and a comparable unmanaged control site. Selective culling of infected individuals neither slowed rate of disease progression nor reduced population-level impacts of this debilitating disease. Culling mortality simply compensated for disease mortality in this system. Failure of selective culling to impede DFTD progress and reduce its impacts in the managed population was attributed to DFTD's frequency-dependent nature, its long latent period and high degree of infectivity, and the presence of a cryptic hidden disease reservoir or continual immigration of diseased individuals. We suggest that increasing the current removal rate and focusing removal efforts prior to the breeding season are options worth pursuing for future management of DFTD in this population. On the basis of our experience, we suggest that disease-management programs for threatened wildlife populations be developed on the principles of adaptive management and utilize a wide variety of strategies with regular reviews and adaptation of strategies undertaken as new information is obtained.