June 2021 - 34

Katie Luukkonen, a wildlife disease biologist at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Wildlife Health Laboratory, picks through a rabbit liver at the lab in Laramie to test if the animal died of
rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2. (Photo by Christine Peterson)
atie Luukkonen only needed
50 milligrams of liver, the
equivalent of two grains of rice.
She sat perched on a stool behind a plastic
shield and curtain of air in the corner of
a long, brightly-lit room at the Wyoming
Game and Fish Department's Wildlife Health
Laboratory in Laramie. Two vials with bits of
bloody liver sat in a bucket of ice. The third
liver she picked through with tweezers.
One liver already tested positive for a
deadly rabbit disease. Another tested negative.
The third was unknown, taken from a
cottontail rabbit found dead south of Laramie
only days before.
Over the course of the next hour, Luukkonen
broke down tissue from the three livers
into RNA - the body's most basic building
block. From there her colleague, Kara Robbins,
ran complicated tests on the RNA. By
noon on a Tuesday morning in late February,
specialists working in the lab confirmed their
suspicions. The cottontail died from a new
scourge pulsing through the United States
and now Wyoming: rabbit hemorrhagic disease
virus 2.
The disease, often called RHDV2, has
been creeping - or perhaps leaping - from
34 | June 2021
K
Quebec to British Columbia to New York
state, then the Southwest and Mountain West.
No one knows yet what impact the disease
will have on Wyoming's wild rabbits. It kills
more than 90 percent of the domestic rabbits
it infects. Some estimates predict it could kill
half or more of Wyoming's cottontails and
jackrabbits. Biologists are more worried about
the much rarer pygmy rabbit and pika, and
about how the disease will compound already
persistent issues like tularemia and plague.
While researchers can't do much about
the disease right now - a vaccine exists for
domestics, but use isn't always practical for
wild rabbits - they are tracking the sickness
so when the day comes with a solution, wildlife
officials will be ready.
" Our wildlife are being exposed to more
and more diseases, with white nose for bats,
chytrid with amphibians, plague, tularemia,
chronic wasting disease. The most important
piece that we're going to have to deal with any
of this is to know how much it's affecting the
populations, " said Nichole Bjornlie, Game
and Fish nongame biologist. " Even if we can't
do anything now, it will be critical to know
down the road. "
Which is why Luukkonen spends a couple
mornings a week picking through bits
of rabbit liver in a laboratory on the edge
of Laramie.

June 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of June 2021

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https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/october-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/september-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/august-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/july-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/june-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/may-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/april-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/march-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/february-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/January2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/December2020
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/September2020
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