As Head of the DNR's wildlife health program, Michelle Carstensen often works outdoors to track and manage animal disease. But when COVID-19 hit, she and her team left their headquarters at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area and began working from home. When reached by phone in late April, Carstensen is in planning mode, with a focus on two serious conservation issues: moose mortality and chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer. She's also learning to embrace video calls with co-workers. "We were doing a lot of phone calls at the start of quarantine," says Carstensen, "but I finally made my staff turn on video the other day so I could see their bearded shagginess and bad hair—add a little bit of reality back in our lives."
Q |When did you become interested in wildlife health?
I grew up on a dairy farm in this itty-bitty town in Wisconsin. Between my junior and senior years of high school, I got into an internship with the School for Field Studies through Northwestern University and went to Kenya to learn about wildlife management. Instead of being among cows in Wisconsin I was suddenly among rhinos and elephants. It was a game-changer and really instilled my love of wildlife. I ended up getting a bachelor's degree in animal science from Cornell University and graduate and doctorate degrees in wildlife conservation from the University of Minnesota.
Q |What did the DNR's wildlife health program look like when you started?
It was me! That was it. I helped build the program from the ground up. I finished my Ph.D. in 2004 and was hired to be the DNR's chronic wasting disease coordinator at Carlos Avery. Those were the early days of CWD. It was found for the first time at a game farm in Aitkin County in 2002, and there was a lot of panic around how much of the disease was already in Minnesota and at what levels. So I came in and helped implement the surveillance and management of the disease. Today we test and monitor for CWD all over the state. It's popped up in game farms or wild deer in 12 Minnesota counties. It's become a huge job. The cases aren't exploding, but they are spreading, and we need to stay on top of them.
Q |How has your program grown over the years?
Well, first there was CWD to worry about, and then in 2005 we discovered bovine tuberculosis in cattle, and then in deer. That really cemented my role at the DNR and created the health program. I have a team of seven now working on different things. One of our newest projects was a pilot study looking at how neonicotinoids—insecticides, basically—impact white-tailed deer health. We don't have test results back yet, but that will continue to be super interesting. And we just wrapped up a long-term moose study that looked at what's causing the decline in Minnesota's moose population. For about six years, my staff and I were on call. Every time a collared moose died, its collar would send us a text message and we'd have 24 hours to tromp out in the woods to find the body and determine the cause of death. It was exciting work. People want a smoking gun for why moose have been in decline, but it's complicated. More and more white-tailed deer are moving into moose habitat and bringing parasites like P. tenuis brain worm with them. So the moose have these parasites to worry about, as well as a warming climate, which they don't like.
Q |Has COVID-19 changed the way you think about your work?
We're looking at the COVID stuff because it's definitely impacting recommendations for how wildlife people should be handling bats, for example. It's not about us getting the disease from wildlife, it's about giving this disease to susceptible wildlife populations. So there's a whole bunch of work going on to develop safety rules for handling wildlife. And, of course, we're looking at how our group can get back in the field, but with proper distancing guidelines. We really want to get back out there, but we have to be safe.
Q |All of this confirms our suspicion that you have a very cool job.
I do have a cool job. I feel lucky to work with such great people and partners.