Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Lyme-carrying tick population rises

Deer tick (AP photo)

If it’s happening in Ohio, chances are it’s happening — or has already happened — here in West Virginia. From the Associated Press:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The state is seeing a shocking increase in the number of deer ticks that can carry Lyme disease, prompting concerns that it will lead to more cases of the illness, insect experts said Wednesday.
A group that includes the state health and wildlife agencies is working to sort out what risks may be posed by last year’s spike in confirmed deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, and how best to spread the word and keep people safe. The experts believe the higher numbers are a sign of tick population growth, not simply the result of more active searching last year.
It’s unclear what spurred the increase, though researchers suspect one factor is favorable weather conditions that helped more of the tick population survive and thrive.
“We got kind of a red flag, a warning that something really unusual was happening with the tick population, and maybe we’re out front of it a little bit” because the number of human cases of Lyme disease in Ohio hasn’t shown a matching spike, said Glen Needham, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University who has studied the ticks and worked with the state to identify them.
More than 1,800 black-legged ticks were found on deer heads collected from hunters last year, and 183 more submitted to the state for identification were confirmed, compared with 29 found on deer heads the year before and 45 that were submitted and confirmed, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The ticks, some carrying Lyme disease, have especially shown up in eastern and southern Ohio.
The deer tick was first found in Ohio in 1989, and in the following two decades, only about 50 of the thousands of ticks found in the state were identified as black-legged ticks, state public health entomologist Richard Gary said. In 2010, 45 deer ticks were confirmed, giving officials their first indication of a change.
“We think that they’ve probably been there for a while, just in numbers too low to be detected, and that’s what’s changing,” Gary said.
One of the problems with deer ticks is that they can be active throughout most of the year. And, unlike other ticks that are more finicky eaters, they’ll feed on a variety of creatures found throughout Ohio, including deer, mice, birds and lizards — and sometimes humans, Needham said.
Bites from infected ticks can lead to rashes, fevers and joint pains. If left untreated, damage to the heart and the nervous system can result.
So far, there’s no parallel spike in cases of the disease in Ohio, which gets 40 to 50 cases annually, Gary said. There were 37 cases in 2010 and at least 51 last year.
As researchers and state officials wait to see if that changes for this year, they are trying to educate physicians, veterinarians, public health workers and residents about avoiding and identifying the ticks. They also plan to seek information from neighboring states including Pennsylvania, which has a higher incidence of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection.
It’s familiar territory for Needham, who has been teaching workshops about ticks for decades and wondered as he approached retirement age whether Ohio would ever see more of them. He said residents who find a tick they consider suspicious should contact their county health departments or local extension offices.

Anatomy of a deer die-off

Wildlife officials in the plains states are dealing now with what West Virginia officials dealt with two years ago — an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, also known as EHD or “blue tongue.” From the Associated Press:

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — White-tailed deer populations in parts of eastern Montana and elsewhere in the Northern Plains could take years to recover from a devastating disease that killed thousands of the animals in recent months, wildlife officials and hunting outfitters said.
In northeast Montana, officials said 90 percent or more of whitetail have been killed along a 100-mile stretch of the Milk River from Malta to east of Glasgow. Whitetail deaths also have been reported along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and scattered sites in Wyoming, South Dakota and eastern Kansas.
The deaths are being attributed to an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD. Transmitted by biting midges, EHD causes internal bleeding that can kill infected animals within just a few days.
“I’ve been here 21 years and it was worse than any of us here have seen,” said Pat Gunderson, the Glasgow-based regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Right now it’s going to take a few years to get things back to even a moderate population.”
In North Dakota, state wildlife chief Randy Kreil described the outbreak as the most extensive and deadly in two decades.
Mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn also are susceptible to EHD, but it is particularly damaging to whitetail herds, animal health experts said. Livestock can be infected but typically show few symptoms.
Researchers say the virus that causes EHD does not infect people and there is no risk of eating or handling infected deer,
More precise estimates of the number of whitetail killed are expected after agencies conduct winter population counts and survey fall hunter success.
Periodic outbreaks of EHD occur in whitetail herds across the country. Wildlife officials say the outbreak in the Northern Plains stands out for the high number of deaths and wide area affected.
Animal health experts suspect it was triggered by an exceptionally wet spring that led to lots of muddy breeding habitat for the biting midges that carry the disease. A warm fall meant the midges lingered and continued transmitting EHD to deer.
The outbreak followed a harsh winter that already had knocked down deer numbers across the region.
In response to those winter deaths, Gunderson said the number of hunting tags offered in northeast Montana was reduced from 5,000 to 4,000. After the EHD outbreak began in late summer, sales of another 2,000 tags were suspended.
In western North Dakota, 1,500 licenses were suspended and the state offered refunds for deer tags already sold. More than 630 people took advantage of the refunds, said Randy Meissner, license manager for North Dakota Game and Fish.
Hunting outfitter Eric Albus in Hinsdale, Mont., said his business ran one archery hunting trip along the Milk River this fall, compared to 40 or 50 hunts in prior years.
“It was horrendous,” Albus said, “especially when you couple it with the fact that we lost 40 to 45 percent of our whitetail in the winter.”
To satisfy his customers, Albus said he leased alternate properties to hunt on that were up to 350 miles away from Hinsdale.
In southern states where deer have a history of exposure to EHD, death rates from the disease are relatively low, said David Stallknecht with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, which has been tracking EHD for more than 30 years.
Whitetail in northern states are more likely to die because they lack the antibodies from previous exposures needed to help fight off the disease, said Stallknecht, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia.
He said a better picture of the outbreak will come later this year, after state wildlife agencies from across the country submit annual animal mortality data to the Southeastern Cooperative
Notwithstanding the disease’s economic impacts to the region’s hunting industry, Gunderson said the loss of so many deer along the Milk and Missouri rivers could have an upside.
Along some stretches of the river, a combination of animal grazing and ice jams scraping the riverbank each winter have prevented cottonwood trees from regenerating for decades.
After the region’s record spring floods allowed seedlings to take root high up on the banks, where they are more protected, Gunderson said a new crop of trees could thrive with so many whitetail gone.
“We won’t have the tremendous deer population browsing on them, so hopefully we’ll get the cottonwoods along these river bottoms that will take us through the next 100 years,” he said.

Deer disease spreads again

CWD infected deer (NY Dept. of Env. Conservation)

Sigh. Chronic wasting disease shows up in yet another place. From the Associated Press:

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission says chronic wasting disease has been found in three central Nebraska counties for the first time.
The commission says a total of 26 deer carcasses tested positive for the disease in Buffalo, Custer and Holt counties during the November firearm hunting season. Nearly 1,600 lymph node samples were taken. One mule deer carcass in Garden County tested positive.
In 2010, 51 positives were found in the more than 3,600 test samples.
The 2011 testing was curtailed by budget issues, so it was concentrated on central Nebraska, which the commission says is the leading edge of the disease as it spreads from west to east.
The disease affects deer and elk and is always fatal. No human cases have ever been recorded.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Gee, I didn’t even know bighorn sheep could get pneumonia.

From the Associated Press:

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife officials are monitoring bighorn sheep from a southern Park County herd that was hit by pneumonia to gauge the risk of a large-scale die-off of the animals.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Karen Loveless told the Livingston Enterprise that five sheep from the afflicted herd near Cinnabar Mountain have been killed since early December.
Loveless says three of the sheep carried a strain of pneumonia associated with a 2010 outbreak that killed about 600 bighorn sheep in western Montana.
About 80 animals from the Cinnabar herd recently dispersed into smaller groups. One bighorn lamb with pneumonia has been found on Mt. Everts, just inside Yellowstone National Park.
Loveless says it’s possible the disease was transmitted to the wild animals by infected domestic sheep.

It’s interesting that the disease might have spread from domestic sheep to the wild bighorns. Farmers and ranchers complain incessantly about brucellosis and other diseases that can spread from wild animals to domestic stock. Should hunters now complain about the presence of domestic animals? Just sayin’.

Researchers take aim at lethal bat disease

Bats with white nose syndrome

White nose syndrome is a problem throughout the eastern half of the United States, so a research project being conducted in Tennessee could have a significant impact here in West Virginia and northward toward New York state, where the disease is devastating native bat populations.

From the Associated Press:

JELLICO, Tenn. (AP) — Researchers with the University of Tennessee and Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University recently visited Tennessee caves to collect 100 little brown bats for research aimed at combating white nose syndrome.
The fast-spreading fungal disease infects bats while they hibernate and has killed more than one million bats across the northeastern U.S.
“One of the issues for white nose syndrome research is that a lot of the work has to be done in labs where they can control the variables, so they have to have bats,” Cory Holliday, cave specialist for The Nature Conservancy told the Knoxville News Sentinel.  “In the Northeast, they’re literally running out of bats due to the epidemic, so they come here.”
Tennessee is home to 15 bat species, three of which are known to be infected with white nose syndrome, but so far the disease has not spread across the state as rapidly as was feared.
Amanda Janicki, a graduate student in the UT Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology was on the recent research expedition. She injected some of the bats with implants of antifungal medicine. Those bats were then rushed to Bucknell University, where they’d be infected with the white nose syndrome fungus.
“This is a clinical trial to see if it works,” Souza said. “If it comes down to species survival, we could bring the bats into captivity and treat them with the implants, which involves less handling than if we gave them daily injections. It’s having to treat bats on an individual basis, but at this point we’re willing to try anything.”

Eastern states improve deer disease monitoring

CWD infected deer (NY Dept. of Env. Conservation)

The presence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in West Virginia’s Hampshire and Hardy counties is forcing surrounding states to more closely monitor their own deer populations.

Both Maryland, which lies just north of West Virginia’s CWD containment zone, and Virginia, which lies just south of it, are taking more samples from hunter-killed animals in an attempt to determine whether the disease has spread. The Associated Press has two stories. First the one from Maryland:

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Department of Natural Resources says it’s changing its tactics in monitoring deer for chronic wasting disease during this year’s modern firearm season.
The agency said Monday it has closed a surveillance station at Green Ridge State Forest that was staffed during the October season for hunters using muzzle-loading guns. Instead, the DNR is sampling deer carcasses at butcher shops.
The agency says too few hunters voluntarily brought their deer to the surveillance station to justify staffing it during the two-week firearm season that began Saturday.
Chronic wasting disease is a neurological ailment fatal to deer. There is no evidence it poses a risk to humans.
A deer killed last year in the Green Ridge State Forest was the first in Maryland to test positive for the disease.

And from Virginia:

WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) — Virginia game officials are planning another round of collecting deer samples from hunters in an ongoing effort to combat chronic wasting disease.
The Department of Game and Fisheries says any deer killed in a containment area on Dec. 3 must be brought to a designated sampling station. Samples previously were collected on Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.
The area’s boundaries are west of Interstate 81 in Frederick County and the city of Winchester, and west of I-81 and north of Route 675 in Shenandoah County.
Chronic wasting disease affects the brains and nervous systems of deer and elk.
Virginia’s first case was detected in 2009 in Frederick County. A second deer killed about 1.5 miles from the first site in 2010 tested positive.

Deer disease wreaks havoc on harvest

Hunters in New Jersey are experiencing what West Virginia’s hunters experienced two years ago.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, commonly called EHD or “blue tongue,” hit the Garden State hard late this summer. Enough dead deer were lying around that local residents could easily smell the stench. Now hunters are having to work really, really hard to find deer.

A hunt in the state’s Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge yielded less than half as many whitetails as in recent years. Sportsmen bagged just 42 deer, far less than the 121 killed last year.

EHD is caused when disease-carrying insects known as midges (we call ’em gnats) bite the deer. When deer contract the disease, they usually die. Mortality rates sometimes reach 90 percent.

West Virginia’s EHD outbreak was bad, but not nearly as bad as New Jersey’s. The Mountain State epizootic (epidemic among animals) was made worse because it was followed by a severe mast failure. Deer that survived the disease went into the winter dramatically weakened for lack of food, and a hard winter finished off many of those that survived.

Fortunately for West Virginia’s herd, the mast failure of 2009 was followed by a bumper mast crop in 2010. Deer easily survived a relatively mild winter and enjoyed outstanding reproduction this past spring.  Hunters should reap the benefits Monday, when the state’s firearm season for bucks opens.

Report: Elk sighted in northern W.Va.

A bull elk, possibly from a Greene County, Pa., captive cervid facility, has been sighted in Wetzel County, W.Va. From the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources:

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has confirmed with officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) that at least two elk, including one adult bull and one cow, have escaped from a captive cervid facility (deer and elk farms) in Greene County, Pa.  Greene County shares a common border with Marshall, Wetzel and Monongalia counties in West Virginia. The elk escaped from a captive cervid facility located approximately three miles from the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border.

The PDA regulates captive cervid facilities in Pennsylvania. A representative of the agency was unaware if the recent escaped elk
were tagged. The WVDNR regulates captive cervid facilities in West Virginia.  In West Virginia, all captive cervids in breeding facilities
must be ear-tagged, and there are currently no reported elk escapes from any facility in West Virginia.

A bull elk has been seen recently in Wetzel County, W.Va., according to WVDNR officials. There have been no reports of cow elk
sightings in either Wetzel County, W.Va., or Greene County, Pa.  No free-ranging wild elk live within 150 miles of Wetzel County. The elk
sighted in Wetzel County is likely the escaped animal from the captive facility in Pennsylvania.

Contact between escaped captive deer or elk and free-ranging white-tailed deer increases the risk of disease transmission from the
captive animals to the native herd, according WVDNR biologists. The movement and/or escape of captive deer and elk increases this risk of contact and are one of the many possible modes of transmission for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) from captive cervids to free-ranging white-tailed deer.

The State of Missouri recently documented CWD in a captive cervid facility. Texas Parks and Wildlife had to euthanize a large
captive deer herd after illegal importation of white-tailed deer from a captive facility in Arkansas.

“Monitoring and protecting West Virginia’s deer herd from CWD and other diseases is crucial to West Virginia’s economy and its
natural resources,” said WVDNR Director Frank Jezioro.  “Deer hunting provides tremendous recreational opportunities for hunters and wildlife viewers, has a large economic impact on its rural communities, and brings in many out-of-state hunters each season to West Virginia.”

WVDNR advises residents in Marshall, Wetzel and Monongalia counties to contact the Farmington District Office at 304-825-6787 if
they see an elk in these counties. Hunters are reminded that it is illegal to harvest any free-ranging elk in West Virginia.

‘Pardoned’ moose dies in captivity

Pete the Moose in his heyday

I find it a little ironic that so many people would rally to save a moose in a high-fence elk hunting enclosure, but didn’t seem to care nearly as much about the elk being killed there. Then again, emotional responses sometimes don’t make a lot of sense.

From the Associated Press:

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Pete the Moose, who developed a cult following with a Facebook page and a rally at the Vermont Statehouse after biologists threatened to kill him to prevent the spread of disease, has died, the state’s top wildlife official said Friday.
Pete, whose case helped prompt the Legislature to pass new wildlife laws two years in a row and who received a gubernatorial pardon last winter, didn’t wake up after being tranquilized for hoof treatment at the captive elk farm where he was living, Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who earlier had said he had certain empathy for the bull moose because of their shared name, issued a statement Friday on Pete’s death, which Berry believes happened last month.
“I join the friends and fans of Pete the Moose in expressing my sadness at his passing,” Shumlin said. “My thanks to those who voiced concern about the fate of the animal and who have – like me – believed in the pardon for Pete.”
Pete’s Facebook page on Friday had about 6,000 people saying they liked the moose. His fate was the subject of a rally at the Statehouse by people opposed to the plan to kill Pete.
Pete enjoyed munching on apples, bananas and Snickers candy bars but refused to eat Milky Ways. In 2010, a female moose that kept companions with Vermont’s favorite animal was pregnant with a calf believed to be Pete’s.
Pete, who was adopted as a calf after dogs attacked his mother and a sibling, was living on the Big Rack Ridge property in Irasburg, an enclosed preserve devoted to allowing people to hunt for elk imported into Vermont.
In 2009, state officials said they didn’t want native wild animals mixing with the elk, out of fear that chronic wasting disease could spread to the native animals and they could then escape back into the wild. Animals other than elk on the preserve were ordered hunted and killed.
A public outcry erupted, and in 2010, Vermont lawmakers crafted a compromise. In it, the animals at the Big Rack Ridge preserve were designated a “special purpose herd,” oversight of which was transferred from Fish and Wildlife to the state Agency of Agriculture. That meant that preserve owner Doug Nelson owned the animals.
But lawmakers reversed themselves earlier this year, saying wild animals in the state can’t be privately owned and are legally a public trust, owned by all Vermonters.

Ranchers could buffalo plans to relocate bison

Bison near Gardiner, Mont. (AP Photo)

There was a time when Americans wondered whether bison would survive or become extinct. Now the only uncertainty is where to put the surplus.

From the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana wildlife officials are heading to Deer Lodge to kick off a series of public hearings on their proposal to relocate dozens of Yellowstone National Park bison.
The hearings are part of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ public comment period on its draft environmental assessment for the relocation of up the bison to state wildlife management areas or tribal lands.
FWP officials say the bison are disease-free after spending years in government quarantine. Ranchers are concerned that the animals could transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle and crowd livestock off pasture land.
The hearing at the Deer Lodge Community Center is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. It will be followed by hearings in Shelby on Thursday and Glasgow on Oct. 17.
The public comment period lasts until Oct. 19.

It’s hard to blame Yellowstone officials for wanting to ship out  some of the park’s bison. In some parts of the park, particularly near the Gardiner entrance, Hayden Valley and the geyser basins along the Firehole River, there are enough bison to constitute a potential threat to visitor safety. Back in the 1980s, when I visited the park nearly every summer to fish, rangers consistently warned me that many more people were killed or injured by bison than by bears.

For a time, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials allowed hunters to kill some of the bison that wandered out of the park into the Gardiner area. The animals, accustomed to humans as they were, could be approached and shot at point-blank range — efficient, but rather unsporting. Animal-rights activists screeched loud and long, and the practice fell into disfavor.

Brucellosis was the reason Montana officials were willing to allow the annual “bison shoots.” Ranchers didn’t want potentially diseased animals to wander close enough to transmit brucellosis to cattle, so they pushed for the hunts.

My guess is that they’ll try to block any attempts to relocate Yellowstone bison, despite assurances that the bison are brucellosis-free.