TB Discovery also Wildlife Concern

Doug Leier

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Many parents with young children spend a fair amount of time at the doctor's office, myself included. Often when I return home, my first stop is at the computer desk to check the Internet to find out a little bit more about the illness, treatment and generally become better educated on the issue.

Last December, when the news of a positive bovine tuberculosis test from a cow in southwestern North Dakota arrived, I kind of felt the same way. While I’m not a cattle rancher, wildlife and livestock disease issues are often interwoven. From brucellosis in Montana, to bovine TB in Minnesota and Michigan, diseases that cross species boundaries can cause a lot of problems.

As its name implies, bovine tuberculosis is primarily a cattle disease. But don't for a minute think TB couldn't impact North Dakota's hunting community.

Bovine TB is such a concern in the wildlife realm because just about any mammal, under the right conditions, can get the disease from cattle or other infected wildlife. Deer or elk are often the most likely recipients because they are sometimes attracted to livestock feeding areas where they could come in direct contact with infected cattle, or eat feed contaminated by infected cattle.

The concern is not so much that bovine TB would quickly spread through and wipe out a local deer population, but rather that deer (or elk) would become an uncontrolled reservoir for the disease that at any time or place could spread TB among themselves, or to a previously unexposed cattle herd. “You might see some deer die off,” according to Dr. Dan Grove, the Game and Fish Department's wildlife veterinarian, “but it's not going to be 60 or 70 in the same field.”

The worst-case scenario is that several hundred deer, plus elk and other big game like bighorn sheep or antelope in the immediate area, would have to be killed and tested to determine if the TB was passed on to wildlife.

Just such a scenario has played out in northwestern Minnesota over the past three years, necessitating the destruction of nearly a dozen cattle herds and a couple of thousand deer - with the tab reaching more than $20 million - and so far the disease has not yet been eliminated.

Throughout the entire testing process in North Dakota, if one more animal from the suspect herd was (or eventually is) confirmed positive, the Game and Fish Department is prepared to move ahead with its plan to test wildlife. In addition, one more positive test would require remaining animals in the suspect herd to be destroyed, and the state veterinarian would expand testing to neighboring cattle herds as well.

If any bovine TB situation requires the Game and Fish Department to sample wild deer or elk populations, it will likely involve personnel from several state and federal agencies as well as landowners, and depending on the time of year, licensed hunters.
"If this was something we found out during summer we’d probably work with hunters to try to get as many samples as we could, and then follow up with additional direct sampling ourselves, if needed," said Greg Link assistant wildlife division chief.

But in winter, Link said, the Department's goal would be to get as many samples as possible from the target area in a short amount of time, since it would be a disease control issue and not population management. This might involve sharpshooters and even aerial shooting, but likely not any type of special hunting season.

“Right away you start thinking about Minnesota,” Link said, “what went on over there, and knowing what they’ve gone through as far as money and manpower, just the huge financial drain it's been for everyone. It takes center stage to everything else you’re doing.”

For the past several years, the Game and Fish Department has been checking for diseases, primarily chronic wasting disease and bovine TB, that other states are dealing with on a daily basis. As with a trip to the clinic for my kids, the doctor's advice rings true - prevention, while not always convenient either, is much more desirable than trying to eliminate the disease, once it's out of the box.

Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: dleier@nd.gov

Posted by Doug Leier under Hunting on March 6, 09 11:04 AM | Permalink

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