When an outbreak of plague is suspected at a national park, National Park Service Veterinary Epidemiologist Danielle Buttke kicks into gear.
First, she rushes a specimen animal to the NPS lab in Ft. Collins, Colorado, for a diagnosis. Then she helps park biologists puzzle out the source of the outbreak—usually the burrows of rodents inflected with plague-bearing fleas—so they can dust them with insecticide. Lastly, she helps to calm the public and establish messaging for safety.
“We are seeing more and new infectious diseases as global travel and land-use change alter disease ecology,” Buttke said. “It has serious implications for both human and wildlife health. Knowing how impactful these diseases are to individual families is really what keeps me going.”
In 2012, Buttke was dispatched to Yosemite to sleuth out the source of a deadly outbreak of hantavirus that killed three park visitors. She traced the virus-carrying deer mice to specific tent cabins in the park where the disease was then eradicated.
Buttke, a 2017-2018 Leshner Fellow, is one of only two NPS epidemiologists. She is in charge of zoonotic diseases—infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans—and must respond to emergent public health issues in more than 400 national parks.
Plague infection in humans is rare, preventable, and treatable through antibiotics, but it has devastated many prairie dog populations and forced the endangered black-footed ferret to near extinction. Other emerging infectious diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease, pose broader health risks to both animals and humans.
But Buttke believes it is also the public’s inflated perception of disease risk in the outdoors that poses a threat to long-term wildlife conservation—and ultimately, human health.
Danielle Buttke | Mary Catherine Longshore, AAAS
“If you think about the biggest killers in humans, it’s not infectious disease,” she said. “It’s chronic diseases that exposure to nature can actually help prevent. Most of the news headlines focus on nature as a reservoir for infectious disease and in reality, it’s not those diseases that are going to kill you; it’s being sedentary or not connected with your community or mental health issues—which exposure to nature could help alleviate.”
Buttke often walks a fine line between prevention and public relations. As a veterinarian who is also trained in public health, her job is to tackle the very health concerns that give rise to public distrust of wildlife and could erode support for conservation. Yet she is often on the stump championing nature as a powerful force for human health and healing.
“Traditional medicine and pharmaceutical interventions focus purely on the physiological,” she said. “The benefit of using a nature-based approach [to health] is that it addresses the spiritual, cultural, physical, [and] personal aspects of who you are as a person that can result in longer-lasting and more sustainable positive outcomes than would something that simply targets one aspect of any of those.”
Along those lines, the NPS has a program called Park Prescriptions that offers guidelines to participating health practitioners on how to “prescribe” specific outdoor activities to address their patients’ health issues. As an added benefit, the program markets local parks to new audiences and increases community use.
No such prescription was needed to inspire Buttke’s abiding love of animals and wild spaces. She grew up on a dairy farm in South Dakota, the first in her family to go to college. “I was one of those kids whose first word was their dog’s name,” she said, laughing. “I never thought about doing anything else but going to veterinary school.”
After earning a doctorate in veterinary medicine and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, she got a master’s in public health and took her skills to developing countries to work on livestock systems and habitat management and mapping.
Ultimately, she realized that she couldn’t fully address wildlife conservation without focusing on the human connection as well. “Not everyone cares about some endangered butterfly or protecting dark skies at night,” she said, “but everyone cares about their health. Connecting nature to health … that’s my goal. That’s why I decided to leave the field of pure wildlife research.”
Today, her research centers on the role that human-induced habitat destruction and species stress has played in the spread of emerging infectious diseases.
“One of the biggest studies I’m doing is understanding how human changes to Eastern forests may have precipitated tick-borne disease,” Buttke said. “Too often, many of these diseases are precipitated by human behaviors, whether it be urban development or … introduction or removal of native species that helped regulate the environment.”
The introduction of invasive plant species such as Japanese barberry, for instance, “promote and protect ticks and reservoirs of diseases in very unnatural ways,” she said. Similarly, the elimination of natural forest predators—such as mountain lions and wolves—has led to unnaturally large populations of tick-bearing white-tailed deer.
The biggest culprit in the rise of emerging infectious diseases may be global warming, which only increases the importance of protecting natural ecosystems in the national parkland’s 84 million acres.
“Wetlands, marshes, and riparian areas mitigate floods, filter water, and can mitigate damage from natural disasters such as hurricanes, which are predicted to occur with increasing intensity and frequency as global temperature rises,” Buttke wrote in an NPS report.
Despite the challenges that pop up daily at parks around the country, she is still optimistic about the future.
“While we have a lot of threats to conservation and lack of resource availability in many areas, I also see that the American public is spending more on recreation than on fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals combined. I see things like that and it does give me hope.”
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