National Wildlife Health Center

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NWHC In The News

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  • 05/10/2017:  White-nose syndrome killing bats at alarming rate, WKOW Channel 27 News
    (Link to the original article)


    MADISON (WKOW) -- They're the species that come with several myths, but bats actually help us in more ways than you think. However, scientists are worried after they've seen an unprecedented drop in the bat population due to a disease that's spreading across the state.

    "It's really devastating," said Jennifer Redell, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

    She's talking about the deadly impacts from white-nose syndrome. It's a disease that originates in their habitats.

    "A fungal disease that is caused by a mold or fungus that prefers the cave environment," Redell said.

    The fungus, that infects the bat's skin, was discovered and named in Madison about 10 years ago by Dr. David Blehert, with the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. A number of bats came from New York at that time that were infected with a fungus that killed them.

    "It disrupts their hibernation and causes them to spend their energy reserve at a time when they otherwise can't go outside and feed," Dr. Blehert explained.

    It means the bats either starve or venture out of their cave, mine, or attic and die from the freezing temperatures. Right now, four of the state's eight species have seen their populations drop dramatically.

    "As of three years ago or so, we had maybe 300,000 to 500,000 bats hibernating statewide. And just over the past couple of winters, we've lost more than half," Redell said.

    She says she's seen a cave that once had 1,000 bats living inside, to come back and find only four of them were still alive. Surveyors found only 16 bats in one Grant County site where the fungus was first detected. That's compared to the 1,200 bats the cave had a couple seasons ago.

    "It's unprecedented. We haven't seen such a dramatic decline in North American wildlife in recorded history," Redell said.

    "Some bat hibernation caves where we've seen the populations just wiped out," Dr. Blehert added.

    It means the chance at you spotting bats this summer has dwindled.

    "People that used to stand outside and count bats emerging from their house, have no bats that returned," Redell said.

    It's also bad news from farmers, who combines, save between $600-million and $1.5-billion on pesticides for their crops because the bats eat insects, according to the state's DNR.

    "We may see increases then in those pesticides on the landscape and on our food products and perhaps increases in costs to the customer," Redell added.

    Bats also help out by eating bugs that are a nuisance to people.

    "One single little brown bat can eat between 600 to 1,000 mosquito-sized bugs per hour when they're out at night," Redell said.

    She says although scientists are currently seeking a solution to slow down the spread of the disease, there are things you can do to help.

    "Put up a bat house. Bats are still coming back into neighborhoods," Redell said. "Individual bats are starting to become very important. So, we want to make sure these animals are protected from any direct threat or direct killing."

    She also added, if you find that bats are coming back to your attic or shed this summer, those are white-nose survivors.

    "Those are a small, select group of individual bats that have something special and it's really helpful for us when people report those roosts so that we can learn as much as possible about what they've done right," she said.

  • 04/21/2017:  Study shows how chronic wasting disease spreads in Wisconsin, The Associated Press
    (Link to the original article)


    MADISON (AP) -- A study has shed light on how chronic wasting disease is spreading through Wisconsin.

    The student from the U.S. Geological Survey studied chronic wasting disease data from 2002 to 2014 and developed a more accurate system to predict how the fatal brain disease found in deer could advance in an area of southwestern Wisconsin near the Wisconsin River, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

    Katherine Richgels, applied wildlife health research branch chief for the National Wildlife Health Center, said researchers found several factors linked to the disease's spread.

    "CWD seems to be moving in association with some of our landscape features," Richgels said. "It's more likely to move through denser forests, and it seems to be blocked to some degree by the river corridor, moving fast along the one side but not crossing it."

    The study found the disease spreads twice as fast in those areas compared to other types, such as agricultural land.

    The disease has been found in more than 40 of Wisconsin's 72 counties since the first confirmed cases in 2002. Richgels said it remains a threat throughout Wisconsin and that hunters should consider having their deer tested for the disease.

    The study's researchers say they're hopeful the forecasting model they developed also could be useful in tracking the spread of diseases in other wildlife, such as white nose syndrome in bats.

  • 01/17/2017:  A Deadly Double Punch: Together, Turbines and Disease Jeopardize Endangered Bats, USGS
    (Link to the original article)


    Wind turbine collisions and the deadly bat disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) can together intensify the decline of endangered Indiana bat populations in the midwestern United States, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey study.

    Bats are valuable because, by eating insects, they save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control, said USGS scientist Richard Erickson, the lead author of the study. Our research is important for understanding the threats to endangered Indiana bats and can help inform conservation efforts.

    Wind energy generation can cause bat mortality when certain species, including the midwestern Indiana bat, approach turbines during migration. Meanwhile, WNS, which is caused by the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus, has killed millions of hibernating bats in North America and is spreading. The new study found that the combination of these two hazards has a larger negative impact on Indiana bats than either threat alone.

    The researchers used a scientific model to compare how wind turbine mortality and WNS may singly and then together affect Indiana bat population dynamics throughout the species U.S. range. Findings from the model include:

    Wind turbine deaths were localized and more likely to affect small sub-populations of bats, whereas WNS was more likely to devastate large winter colonies over the species entire range;

    Together, the two threats reduced the sizes of all Indiana bat sub-populations;

    WNS had the largest impact on population dynamics, with the most severe potential die-off scenario showing a population loss of about 95 percent; and

    Despite killing fewer animals than WNS, wind turbines disrupted Indiana bat migration routes, which affected metapopulation dynamics more than WNS did in almost all modeled scenarios. A bat metapopulation consists of separated groups of the same species that interact during migration.

    These findings are useful for wildlife managers because they demonstrate the extra importance of protecting small Indiana bat colonies during the winter to help prevent extinction, Erickson said.

    WNS is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

    The USGS partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the new study, which is published in the journal PeerJ.

    For more information about bats, wind energy and WNS, please visit the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center websites.

    Visit whitenosesyndrome.org to learn about the coordinated response to WNS, led by the USFWS.

  • 12/08/2016:  Goose hunters urged to wait to consume recent kills, nbcmontana.com
    (Link to the original article)


    BOZEMAN, Mont. - The following is a press release from Fish, Wildlife and Parks:

    Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is advising hunters to wait to consume snow geese harvested after Nov. 28 in the Butte and Dillon areas.

    Instead, FWP recommends hunters process and freeze birds at this time and do not eat them until the Department knows how or if this event has affected the edible portions of the birds.

    Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Company officials (responsible for the Berkeley Pit mine) are asking members of the public who find living or dead snow geese to contact Butte-Silver Bow animal control at (406) 497-6527. After hours, contact Montana Resources directly at (406) 496-3233.

    The following joint statement was sent out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overseeing Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Company response to significant bird mortality at Berkeley Pit

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), in consultation with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), continue to oversee recovery and response activities being taken by Montana Resources and the Atlantic Richfield Company to address recent bird mortalities at the Berkeley Pit, part of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site.

    Over the course of the last week, thousands of migrating snow geese have landed on the surface of the pit, which contains highly acidic water and high concentrations of metals. Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield are taking action to prevent birds from landing and remaining on the surface of the pit as part of an EPA and MDEQ-approved waterfowl mitigation plan that has been in place since 2002. While these hazing efforts, which include the use of explosives, noise-making devices, flare guns, spotlights and firearms, have successfully forced many of the geese to leave the pit, recent reconnaissance efforts, including a review of information collected by aerial drones, indicate that potentially thousands of geese have died.

    Montana Resources and the Atlantic Richfield Company continue to perform mitigation activity, recover birds, and evaluate conditions in the pit. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service toxicologists, biologists, and law enforcement staff will be collecting dead birds for submission the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center, and the Services Forensics Laboratory for testing.

    Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield are responsible for cleanup and response activity at the Mine Flooding operable unit of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site, including the provisions of the waterfowl mitigation plan at the Berkeley Pit, under a consent decree agreement with EPA. They perform this responsibility under the February 2002 Berkeley Pit Migratory Waterfowl Mitigation Plan Observation and Hazing Program.

    EPA and the Service will continue working with Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield to evaluate the conditions and circumstances that contributed to this event. This will include an evaluation of the previous implementation of the consent decree measures, and an assessment of corrective measures currently appropriate to protect migratory waterfowl and prevent any future recurrence.

  • 11/28/2016:  In the last decade a mystery disease has hit America, bbc.com
    (Link to the original article)


    In 2006 biologists studying the only timber rattlesnakes in the state of New Hampshire recorded something alarming: a population crash. The already rare animals numbering about 40 in total began dying in unusually large numbers. No more than 20 rattlesnakes survived, and the population remained at that new super-low level five years later.

    Many of the snakes showed signs of a severe skin infection on their heads and bodies just before they died. It was an early sign of a deadly fungal disease that is now sweeping through the snakes of eastern North America.

    Today at least 30 species are affected. "Snake fungal disease" has been documented in more than 16 US states and in parts of Canada. How worried should we be?

    Snake fungal disease generally begins with a relatively mild skin infection, often but not always where a snake's skin has been physically damaged.

    The snake's immune system kicks into action, but within a few days the skin at the infection site has begun to thicken and die, creating a yellow or brown crust. In some cases this crust breaks off, exposing raw flesh and allowing the fungus to spread.

    If the infection reaches the head it can interfere with the snake's eyes or sense of smell, leaving the animal unable to hunt and prone to death by starvation.

    Even if the infection remains confined to the body, it can interfere with the snake's behaviour in a way that raises the risk of death. For instance, some infected snakes bask out in the open air at times of the year when they should be hibernating. Doing so raises their body temperature and helps their immune system fight the disease, but it can leave the snake vulnerable to death if ambient temperatures drop suddenly.

    This sort of detailed information might give the impression that snake fungal disease is relatively well understood by biologists. That could hardly be further from the truth.

    In fact, until 2015 it was not even clear which fungus triggers the disease.

    Two studies, published a month apart, formally identified the culprit. Both found that healthy snakes developed the disease if they were infected with a soil fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola.

    The curious thing is that O. ophiodiicola appears to have been present in North America long before snake fungal disease flared up.

    "It's in so many different habitats," says Matt Allender at the University of Illinois in Urbana, who co-authored one of the two studies. "I think it was widespread across all landscapes, and certain factors have caused it to emerge as a pathogen-causing disease."

    Exactly when the fungus turned into a snake killer is also unclear.

    Jeffrey Lorch at the US Geological SurveyNational Wildlife Health Centre in Madison, Wisconsin was a co-author on the second O. ophiodiicola study. He points out that there are sporadic reports of snakes with skin lesions going back decades. "But we have not yet been able to definitively prove that these older cases were caused by Ophidiomyces," he says.

    Research by Allender and his colleagues suggests O. ophiodiicola might have begun attacking snakes very recently.

    The scientists trawled through museum collections across Illinois, one of the states badly affected by snake fungal disease today. "We looked at every massasauga a type of rattlesnake specimen that came in since 1880, and re-evaluated and re-examined any animal with any evidence of clinical signs consistent with snake fungal disease," says Allender.

    Then the team studied samples from lesions that could have been caused by the fungus and looked at their molecular makeup.

    "We saw zero occurrence of the fungus from 1880 all the way through to 1999," says Allender. "The year 2000 is when we start to see its emergence in the area."

    This suggests that an event at the turn of the millennium led a relatively benign fungus to become a potent snake killer.

    However, nobody knows what that trigger was. "It is unclear why the disease seems to be becoming more problematic," says Lorch.

    It might be significant that environmental conditions in eastern North America were unusually wet in 2006, the year snake fungal disease was first documented. Cool and damp conditions certainly favour fungal activity, as Lorch and his colleagues pointed out in a paper published in October 2016.

    But, paradoxically, they also say that unusually hot and dry weather could have been a triggering factor. Such conditions might have encouraged snakes to spend more time underground to escape the heat. That could have put them into prolonged contact with the soil-dwelling fungus, giving it more opportunity to attack.

    It might be significant that O. ophiodiicola seems to have a greater chance of infecting snakes hibernating in warmer soil, as Allender and his colleagues reported in 2015.

    Another of their studies, published in July 2016, suggests a human factor in the rise of snake fungal disease. They explored which disinfectants are most effective against Ophidiomyces.

    "We found several things would kill the fungus: bleach, alcohol and over-the-counter cleaners," says Allender. "But what didn't kill it was an agricultural fungicide. It's concerning. Is the emergence of widespread fungicide use linked to emergence of some of these fungal diseases?"

    Working out why O. ophiodiicola became so deadly is clearly important. But arguably there is an even more urgent question to answer: exactly how deadly is the fungus?

    So far snake fungal disease has proved to be astonishingly indiscriminate. "It's in more than 15 genera of snakes," says Allender.

    Some affected snakes seem to fare better than others.

    In a few species snake fungal disease is having a truly devastating impact. "The main species I look at is a rattlesnake called the eastern massasauga," says Allender. "They have a 92.5% mortality rate from the disease."

    "In many areas, snake populations are highly fragmented and already in trouble from other threats," says Lorch. "It is these cases where we worry about snake fungal disease contributing to local or regional extinction."

    Even a reduction in snake numbers falling short of outright extinction could be bad news. Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem, because they hunt rodents and other animals that can carry diseases. If snakes begin to disappear from the landscape, these dangerous diseases could become more commonplace. That could pose a threat to human health.

    Unfortunately, what little evidence there is suggests snakes are on the decline across the world.

    In 2010, Chris Reading at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford, UK, and his colleagues reported evidence of sharp snake population drops in the UK, France, Italy, Nigeria and Australia.

    "It is possible that environmental pressures on snakes, such as habitat loss or degradation, climate change and prey availability, could all potentially impact on a snake's physiology," says Reading. "That might therefore result in a reduced ability to resist otherwise mild infections."

    So how worried should we be about snake fungal disease? It is probably too early to say for sure, but it could prove to be a big problem.

    To make matters worse, snakes have a terrible public image. That means drumming up support for research into snake fungal disease is a challenge.

    "It's hard to get people excited about snakes. It's not a group of species that many people care much about," says Allender. "And most cases of the disease are in venomous species, which makes it even more difficult to get them excited."

    North American bat researchers faced a similar public-relations battle a few years ago, when another devastating fungal infection white-nose syndrome began killing the flying mammals in large numbers.

    Allender says the bat researchers did a "really good job" of explaining that bats bring economic benefits: for instance, by hunting and killing insects that might otherwise eat crops.

    "There's a really direct link between bats and agricultural food supplies," he says. "But with snakes we can't simplify the narrative as much."

    This might be the biggest challenge the snake biologists face. Finding a way to make the public care about the plight of snakes could be a necessary first step in the fight against snake fungal disease.

  • 11/28/2016:  Fungus that attacks snakes spreads to Wisconsin, Minnesota, GreatLakesEcho.org
    (Link to the original article)


    By Kate Habrel

    Snakes in Wisconsin and Minnesota may be at risk for a fungal disease previously found only in the eastern U.S.

    Researchers recently confirmed the diseases presence in those two states. Elsewhere in the Great Lakes region it has been confirmed in Illinois, Ohio and New York.

    The disease is caused by a fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola a long name for a small spore. Though it is naturally found on the skin of healthy snakes, it can cause severe infections if it gets into lesions or sores.

    More than 30 species of snakes are susceptible to the fungus, said Jeff Lorch, a microbiologist working for the U.S. Geological Survey. The disease has been found in captive snakes for all families in the eastern U.S.

    At this point, Lorch said, theres no indication that a given species is resistant or not susceptible.

    The disease causes crusty scabs on the surface of the snakes skin. It concentrates mostly around the head and eyes. In mild cases, only a small group of scales becomes infected. This might take the form of a blister or lesion. The snake will shed, and the infection will seem to vanish.

    In more severe cases, lesions continue to grow, often spreading to the head.

    Its unable to see because its got so many layers of skin over the eyes and crusted around the eyes, said Kathy Michell, a wildlife biologist and rehabilitator in New York who specializes in snakes, eagles and turtles. They cant sense their prey, and their mouth gets all encrusted. They basically cant see or eat.

    Snakes typically shed once or twice per year. To get rid of the fungus, severely infected snakes will shed as frequently as once every three weeks. Sometimes the infection will seem to go away, but reappear by the next shed cycle, Michell said.

    Snake fungal disease first gained attention in 2006 when a population of timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire declined by about 50 percent, according to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The drop was at least partially caused by the disease. At around the same time, the infections were also noticed in eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Illinois.

    Researchers observed snakes emerging from their dens in the spring with sores on their skin. These hibernation sores were the first subtle signs of the disease.

    Some experts drew comparisons to white-nose syndrome, another fungal disease that is found in bats.

    Theres a very lucrative trade industry with snakes being collected in the wild and brought to different parts of the world, Lorch said. So a lot of people thought, maybe this spilled over from captive snakes into the wild snakes.

    While many species of snakes are susceptible, the disease is not 100 percent fatal. With proper treatment and rehabilitation, the majority can recover, said Michell.

    Even snakes in the wild can recover. The population of New Hampshire timber rattlesnakes has since rebounded. According to Michell, there have been no signs of infection since the initial outbreak.

    A lot is not yet known about snake fungal disease and its spread. Since most snakes crawl underground to die, its difficult to measure populations and fatalities.

    Michell encourages people to report the disease to their state wildlife agency or local DNR office if they come across an infected snake. The date, location and symptoms should be included in the report.

  • 11/28/2016:  Hundreds of Tufted Puffin Deaths Suggest Dangers of Warming Seas, audobon.org
    (Link to the original article)


    In October, the first Tufted Puffin carcasses washed up on a chilly beach on St. Paul Island, a lonely Bering Sea outpost between Russia and Alaska. At first, local residents didnt think much of the dead birds; they were used to finding seabirds battered by violent weather near the island. But as the days passed, puffins continued to arrive. Within weeks, hundreds more had drifted onto the island's beaches, apparently dead from starvation.

    The dead Tufted Puffins add another mass mortality event to a string of recent seabird die-offs along the Pacific coast. Last year, around 8,000 Common Murres washed up in one of the largest die-offs in Alaskan history. A year before that, thousands of Cassins Auklets were found dead on beaches from California to British Columbia.

    In a region that has seen back-to-back years of record-breaking high ocean temperatures, yet another case of seabird mortality is unsettling scientists. The emaciated seabird carcasses could point to ongoing changes in ocean ecosystems in response to climate change, they say.

    What I keep coming back to is that we didnt used to see this, says Julia Parrish, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. She heads the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a network of citizen scientists that have counted seabird carcasses washed up along Alaskas beaches for eleven years. We might see mass mortality events every six to eight years, Parrish says. Now sometimes its twice in one year. In all of the years that COASST has been collecting beach bird data, we have never seen so many mass mortality events so quickly as we have in the last three years.

    Since they found the first emaciated puffin carcasses in October, members of the Aleut community of St. Paul Island have braved high winds and extreme weather to collect nearly 300 of the dead seabirds. However, the data collected on stormswept and isolated beaches on St. Paul likely underestimate how many puffins have died.

    Part of the problem of the Bering Sea is there aren't many people out there to see if the birds are dying or where theyre washing up, says Kathy Kuletz, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. Often a very generous estimate is that youre seeing 10 percent of the die-off in an area.

    Three hundred is not a big number in and of itself, Parrish says, noting that total mortality could be much higher. We dont know the shape or the size of it. Its very frustrating.

    Tufted Puffins, handsome birds with bright orange bills, distinctive white faces, and golden head plumes, remain abundant along the Alaskan coastline, though their numbers along the west coast of the lower 48 have declined steadily for years. They feed by diving deep into the Bering Sea for fatty forage fish like baby walleye pollock. As winter approaches, the birds usually drift farther south. They spend most of their time offshore and are notoriously difficult to track.

    The sudden appearance of hundreds of Tufted Puffins far north of their normal feeding areas has so far puzzled researchers. The birds may have wandered north in search of food after coming up empty in their normal hunting areas in the south. The Pacific Ocean has now experienced several years of high ocean temperatures, which may be redistributing fishy prey the seabirds rely on. Pollock populations in the Bering Sea have been fairly steady, but much less is known about the fattier forage fish that Tufted Puffins need to store extra fat and survive stormy winters.

    There are other possibilities for the die-off. Warmer waters encourage the growth of algae blooms, which sometimes produce biotoxins. Traces of biotoxins could have disoriented birds and prevented them from hunting. So far scientists havent found any signs that the birds are sick; carcasses are still being sent to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center to be tested for toxins or diseases.



    Its a process of elimination to identify the mechanism causing the seabirds to starve, says Robert Kaler, a wildlife biologist at the Alaska branch of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He suspects there are likely several factors involved in the die-offs. So far, no one has found a smoking gun.

    As biologists try to figure out why the Tufted Puffins are starving, theyre also unsure why the birds are coming inland near an island that the seafaring species wouldn't normally approach. In the entire decade before this October, only six of the birds had washed up dead on St. Paul Island. And then this year, for still unknown reasons, hundreds and likely thousands of Tufted Puffins altered their usual behaviors to congregate near a stormy island in the Bering Sea and die. Its possible that a series of intense storms that struck near St. Paul Island in October and November may have thrown the already weakened or disoriented birds off course.

    This seems to be an emerging pattern where birds that appear to be in sort of distressed situations come closer to shore, Parrish says, noting that the same thing had happened with Common Murres in the Gulf of Alaska last year. And I have no idea why.

    With these mass starvations among seabirds becoming a yearly occurrence, scientists continue to look into their underlying causes to better predict what the future holds for the important wildlife habitats and lucrative fisheries of the Bering Sea. For Parrish, who has headed responses to each of the recent seabird die-offs, the starvations show a fundamental change in the ecosystem that will affect millions of seabirds, mammals, and fish in the years to come.

    Theres a lot going on, she says. And it does not look very good.

  • 11/18/2016:  Invasive snail blamed for annual Mississippi River bird kill, WinonaDailyNews.com
    (Link to the original article)


    An invasive snail is being blamed for killing hundreds of waterfowl on the Upper Mississippi River this fall.

    Field workers have found almost 1,000 dead coot and lesser scaup washed up on the shores near Genoa since early October, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The birds are believed to be the victims of an intestinal parasite found in faucet snails, which the birds eat during stopovers on their fall migration.

    Die-offs have become an annual event during the past 15 years, since the arrival of the faucet snail. Native to Europe, the snails were introduced to the Great Lakes in the late 1900s and have since made their way into inland waterways. Faucet snails were first discovered in Lake Onalaska in the early 2000s and are now prevalent on the river between La Crescent and McGregor, Iowa.

    They basically came in and basically out-competed native snails, said Roger Haro, associate dean for the College of Science and Health at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Theyve been around for a while but they never caused a detectable problem with waterfowl.

    While the snails provide a food source for waterfowl, they carry a parasite known as trematodes that can infect the birds and cause them to die within three to eight days, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Though trematodes can affect up to 19 species of waterfowl, Haro said they are most harmful to coot and scaup.

    The outbreaks are a concern because about 40 percent of all North American waterfowl follow the Mississippi River flyway during their annual migration, stopping to feed as they make their way south each fall and back north in the spring.

    Haro and other scientists at UW-L have been studying the snails to better understand their behaviors and the effects of temperature variations on their growth.

    There are no reported health risks from handling or consuming waterfowl infected by trematodes, according to the National Wildlife Health Center, but sick birds can have secondary infections that cause their intestines to leak into the body cavity. Hunters are advised to wear gloves if handling sick birds.

    Haro said the infected birds do not appear to be a threat to other species, instead providing an abundant food source for bald eagles and vultures.

    In some years the Fish and Wildlife Service collects carcasses, but with cold temperatures forecast in the coming days officials decided the birds would not create a significant nuisance this year, said Hallie Rasmussen, visitors services director for the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

    Its kind of a jolting thing for people to see all these dead birds, Haro said.

    Faucet snails were first discovered in Lake Onalaska in the early 2000s and are now prevalent on the river between La Crescent and McGregor, Iowa.

  • 11/15/2016:  Dorchester Bird Deaths Remain Mystery After Lab Finds Cause Undetermined, CBS Boston
    (Link to the original article)


    DORCHESTER (CBS) The Wisconsin toxicology lab that Boston officials asked for help in determining what caused 40 birds to fall out of the sky two months ago was unable to draw any conclusions in their mysterious deaths.

    As many as 40 birds fell out of the sky on Bakersfield Street in Dorchester on September 8. Others were found sickly and lethargic. All of the birds were grackles.

    Stomach content from the birds was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

    Investigators had been looking at the possibility of the birds ingesting a chemical agent known as avitrol, which is commonly used to remove pestsbut the lab found the birds cause of death undetermined.

    Tests conducted by The Animal Rescue League of Boston and Inspectional Services for viruses like West Nile and bacteria like salmonella all came back negative.

  • 11/15/2016:  Large die-off of tufted puffins in Pribilof Islands seems linked to unusual warm spell, adn.com
    (Link to the original article)


    Earlier, it was murres and whales that had been turning up dead in large numbers on Alaska beaches or in Alaska waters. Now it is puffins, bright-beaked birds that are icons of Alaska's marine communities.

    Since mid-October, residents of St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs have found over 200 dead tufted puffins washed ashore on the Bering Sea beach, along with additional dead horned puffins and murres.

    The extent of the die-off 217 dead tufted puffins found as of Nov. 4 is alarming and appears to be linked to unusual warmth in the region, said University of Washington ecologist Julia Parrish, who has been consulting with St. Paul islanders.

    The toll dwarfs past counts of dead tufted puffins found on the beach, she said.

    "In 10 years of standard beach surveys, we've only found, at most, three tufted puffins. There's a very big difference there," said Parrish, who is executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program COASST based at the University of Washington.

    Put in context, the numbers are particularly worrisome, she said. What is washing ashore is likely only a small fraction of the total number of puffins dying in the area, at most 10 percent but more likely a much smaller percentage, she said. The Pribilof-breeding population of tufted puffins totals only about 6,000, so a death toll in the thousands represents a large portion of that, she said. Also significant is the presence of puffins as far north as St. Paul so late in year, highly unusual because the birds usually disperse to the south in the season, she said.

    The puffins' carcasses are mostly intact showing no evidence of predation but they are emaciated, indicating severe food shortages in their habitat, Parrish said.

    Dead tufted puffins were collected and photographed Oct. 19 and 20, 2016, on St. Paul Island. (Paul Melovidov / Aleut Community of St. Paul Ecosystem Conservation Office)

    Necropsies of puffins sent from St. Paul to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center revealed the birds died of starvation, she said.

    Parrish said she believes the die-off is linked to the much higher-than-normal temperatures in that part of the Bering Sea. Such conditions trigger a pattern that is being replicated in St. Paul, she said more post-breeding birds hugging the shoreline and coming to shore, large beaching of birds and death by starvation.

    Unusual warmth has been documented this fall on and around St. Paul Island. Sea-surface temperatures in the Bering Sea have soared well above average since August, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Air temperatures have also been much higher than normal.

    Twenty of the days in October had record-breaking or record-tying high temperatures in St. Paul, and the month's average temperature there was 6.2 degrees higher than the long-term normal, according to the National Weather Service. September's average temperature in St. Paul was 4.6 degrees higher than the long-term normal for the month, and August's average temperature was 4.1 degrees higher than normal for that month, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    While experts say that any particular event can't be tied to climate change because of the normal variability of weather, overall global warming, blamed in part on humans' use of fossil fuels, is linked to a rise in sea-surface temperatures. President Barack Obama has made addressing climate change a central focus of his administration, but President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed global warming as a Chinese conspiracy and has put a climate change doubter, Myron Ebell, in charge of his Environmental Protection Agency transition.

    Pamela Lestenkof, co-director of the St. Paul tribal government's Ecosystem Conservation Office, said strong southerly winds blew in for most of the fall, a big departure from the usual seasonal weather on the island.

    "We've had a lot of wind and high surf," she said. Only recently have winds shifted to the north, she said.

    The local St. Paul tribal group conducts regular beach surveys in coordination with the COASST program.

    Lestenkof has been participating in the beach surveys herself and went out as soon as she could after learning about the first discoveries.

    "I saw just over 40 dead puffins, and that was pretty alarming," she said.

    She said the search for dead puffins started in earnest after two dead juveniles were collected earlier in October.

    Even puffins that are not dead appear to be in trouble, Lestenkof said.

    "We're still seeing ones that are alive. They just stay put; they don't move. They look weak," she said.

    The tufted puffin die-off echoes other recent mass mortality events for Alaska marine animals.

    A die-off of common murres first reported last year is now classified as Alaska's biggest ever recorded for that species. Along with the beaches littered with dead murres, many of the birds have been found alive but starving and far away from their normal marine habitat, sometimes well inland.

    In the Gulf of Alaska, a die-off of large whales first discovered in May of 2015 has been classified by NOAA as an "unusual mortality event" warranting special investigation.

    Toxicity from harmful algal blooms events associated with warm-water conditions has emerged as a leading suspect in the whale deaths.

  • 11/03/2016:  Resurgence of avian botulism suspected in death of birds in Northern Michigan, MichiganRadio.org
    (Link to the original article)


    By REBECCA WILLIAMS

    In the last few weeks, roughly 600 birds have died along the shore of Lake Michigan. They washed up on the beaches within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with more dead birds reported on beaches in the Upper Peninsula.

    Experts suspect the cause is avian botulism (the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has confirmed Type E botulism as the cause of death for some birds in the U.P. Test results are pending for the birds from Sleeping Bear Dunes, but several experts suspect Type E botulism there as well).

    Its a serious illness caused by a bacterial toxin, and its come and gone for decades in the Great Lakes region. You can learn more about the role invasive mussels and mats of algae play in the process here.

    Dan Ray heads up avian botulism monitoring for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

    The birds lose the power to fly and they cant keep their heads up so many of the birds actually find it safer to be out in the water, out in the lake, rather than the shore, and theyll actually drown because they cant keep their head up out of the water, he says.

    Ray sends the data he and his team collect to the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center.

    Jenny Chipault is on the centers Wildlife Epidemiology Team. She says that avian botulism type E has affected birds in our region on and off since the 1960s.

    And in 2006, there were a lot of dead birds observed mostly on the shores of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. And that kind of prompted further investigation into the dynamics of botulism type E mortality on Lake Michigan, she explains.



    Jenny Chipault examines a gull prior to necropsy.

    CREDIT STEPHANIE STEINFEDLT / US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE HEALTH CENTER

    And its not just Lake Michigan - she says the same pattern has been observed on other Great Lakes as well.

    Chipault says the botulinum toxin can be found in different prey items.

    She hopes that by finding which prey items harbor the toxin, and where they can be found, researchers might someday be able to help some birds avoid the toxin.

    We could maybe deter birds from using those areas, probably especially during migration. So thats kind of the big overall goal, but it being such a huge lake and a complex system, its going to take some more research to get there, says Chipault.

  • 10/31/2016:  Here's how peanut butter snack may save endangered ferrets, Jackson Progress-Argus
    (Link to the original article)


    Marlena Baldacci CNN

    (CNN) -- The government plans to use drones and peanut butter to save an endangered animal officials once thought was extinct.

    New video of the collaborative (and tasty) effort to save the black-footed ferret doesn't however, start with North America's rarest mammal. It starts instead, with their prey: prairie dogs.

    For the last 15 years, Dr. Tonie Rocke, a research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has been working with other scientists to develop vaccines, including the one she hopes will save the ferrets. Both black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs are highly susceptible to the Sylvatic plague, and once a prairie dog colony is infected, the disease can spread quickly. Without their primary source of food, black-footed ferrets can't survive.

    Scientists knew they needed to figure out how to keep the prairie dogs disease-free, but were in a race against time -- there are only several hundred black-footed ferrets in existence.

    That's where the drones come in.

    Kurt Kreiger, the owner of Model Avionics, based in Billings, Montana, says he was listening to the radio and heard a story about the plight of the black-footed ferret. He remembers saying, "I can do that!" when he heard that the scientists were looking for a way to get the vaccine to the animals, and he reached out to offer his assistance.

    But it hasn't been all smooth sailing. The biggest challenge facing the teams, according to Kreiger, was the bait itself. "The inconsistency of size...they (the pellets) weren't exactly the same size, they weren't exactly round, you had to keep them frozen, otherwise they'd get too soft."

    But why peanut butter? Rocke says it was all trial and error. Testing peanut butter, sweet potato and blueberry, she says "peanut butter was the clear favorite!"

    After working with batches and batches of the mix -- which includes peanut butter, corn meal, and gelatin -- Kreiger says they're nearing the finish line. "This is the winner. We're so close right now."

    This summer, teams fanned out across Montana, Colorado and South Dakota, using the drone to fire blue, peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with the vaccine. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called it a success, saying 60 percent to 90 percent of the prairie dogs snacked on the pellets.

    The drone, which will go back out with teams next summer for more testing, is about the size of a large truck tire, according to Kreiger.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ryan Moehring says this undertaking is innovative because of how it's being targeted.

    "What's really interesting about this project is that we're not distributing the vaccine pellets for the species that we're trying to save," but instead, targeting the prairie dogs.

    One partner in the effort, the World Wildlife Fund, put together video of the project, and Fish and Wildlife also hosts a webcam of a ferret named Two-bit, who lives at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado.

    The-CNN-Wire

    & 2016 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

  • 10/30/2016:  DEC reminds public to avoid caves, mines to protect bat populations, Livingston County News
    (Link to the original article)


    The state Department of Environmental Conservation urges outdoor adventurers to suspend exploration of cave and mine sites that may serve as homes for bat hibernations. Human disturbances are harmful to the States bat population since the arrival of the disease known as white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than 90 percent of bats at most hibernation sites in New York.

    Research by DECs Wildlife Diversity Staff and others have shown that white-nose syndrome makes bats highly susceptible to disturbances, said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

    Even a single, seemingly quiet visit can kill bats that would otherwise survive the winter, Seggos said in a statement. If you see hibernating bats, assume you are doing harm and leave immediately.

    All posted notices restricting the use of caves and mines should be followed. Those encountering hibernating bats while underground, are asked to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible.

    Experts believe that when bats are disturbed during hibernation periods, it forces them to raise their body temperatures, which depletes their fat reserves. This affects bats energy levels and places the bats in a comprised state, which can lead to death.

    There are two species of bats protected under federal and state endangered species law. The Indiana bat, which is sparsely distributed across New York, is a federally threatened bat that was listed before white-nose syndrome began impacting bat populations.

    The northern long-eared bat is protected as a threatened species under both federal and New York State Endangered Species law. The current population for this formerly common bat is approximately one percent of its previous size, making it the species most severely impacted by white-nose syndrome. Nonetheless, northern long-eared bats are still widely distributed in New York. Their presence is documented in most of the 100 or so caves and mines that serve as bat hibernation sites in the State.

    Anyone entering a northern long-eared bat hibernation site from Oct. 1 through April 30, the typical period of hibernation for bats, may be subject to prosecution.

    There is no treatment for addressing the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats, but DEC remains committed to finding a cure. Along with the New York State Department of Health, DEC has teamed up with researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisc., and experts at a number of universities across the country to better understand the disease and focus on developing a treatment. It was this collaborative effort that helped identify that reducing disturbances at hibernation sites during the winter and reducing disturbances at roosting sites in the summer can help the surviving animals thrive.

    By cutting trees during the winter, direct impacts to roosting bats can be avoided. DEC also encourages homeowners with bats in their attics or barns to explore non-lethal means of removing them from the structure.

    For more information about white-nose syndrome and what you can do to help see: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/what-can-you-do-help.

    Details about the protection of the northern long-eared bat can be found at: www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/mammals/nleb/.

  • 10/28/2016:  DEC Reminds the Public to Avoid Seasonal Caves and Mines to Protect Bat Populations, Long Island Magazine
    (Link to the original article)


    Albany, NY - October 28, 2016 - The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today urged outdoor adventurers to suspend exploration of cave and mine sites that may serve as homes for bat hibernations. Human disturbances are harmful to the State's bat population since the arrival of the disease known as white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than 90 percent of bats at most hibernation sites in New York.

    "Research generated by DEC's Wildlife Diversity staff and our partners demonstrates that white-nose syndrome makes bats highly susceptible to disturbances," said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. "Even a single, seemingly quiet visit can kill bats that would otherwise survive the winter. If you see hibernating bats, assume you are doing harm and leave immediately."

    All posted notices restricting the use of caves and mines should be followed. If New Yorkers or visitors to the State encounter hibernating bats while underground, they are asked to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible.

    Experts believe that when bats are disturbed during hibernation periods, it forces them to raise their body temperatures, which depletes their fat reserves. This affects bats' energy levels and places the bats in a comprised state, which can lead to death.

    There are two species of bats currently protected under federal and state endangered species law. The Indiana bat, which is sparsely distributed across New York, is a federally threatened bat that was listed before white-nose syndrome began impacting bat populations.

    The northern long-eared bat is protected as a threatened species under both federal and New York State Endangered Species law. The current population for this formerly common bat is approximately one percent of its previous size, making it the species most severely impacted by white-nose syndrome. Nonetheless, northern long-eared bats are still widely distributed in New York. Their presence is documented in most of the 100 or so caves and mines that serve as bat hibernation sites in the State. Anyone entering a northern long-eared bat hibernation site from October 1 through April 30, the typical period of hibernation for bats, may be subject to prosecution.

    There is currently no treatment for addressing the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats, but DEC remains committed to finding a cure. Along with the New York State Department of Health, DEC has teamed up with researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, and experts at a number of universities across the country to better understand the disease and focus on developing a treatment. It was this collaborative effort that helped identify that reducing disturbances at hibernation sites during the winter and reducing disturbances at roosting sites in the summer can help the surviving animals thrive.

    By cutting trees during the winter, direct impacts to roosting bats can be avoided. DEC also encourages homeowners with bats in their attics or barns to explore non-lethal means of removing them from the structure.

  • 10/26/2016:  Here's how peanut butter snack may save endangered ferrets, CNN
    (Link to the original article)


    Marlena Baldacci

    (CNN)The government plans to use drones and peanut butter to save an endangered animal officials once thought was extinct.

    New video of the collaborative (and tasty) effort to save the black-footed ferret doesn't however, start with North America's rarest mammal. It starts instead, with their prey: prairie dogs.

    For the last 15 years, Dr. Tonie Rocke, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has been working with other scientists to develop vaccines, including the one she hopes will save the ferrets. Both black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs are highly susceptible to the Sylvatic plague, and once a prairie dog colony is infected, the disease can spread quickly. Without their primary source of food, black-footed ferrets can't survive.

    Scientists knew they needed to figure out how to keep the prairie dogs disease-free, but were in a race against time -- there are only several hundred black-footed ferrets in existence.

    That's where the drones come in.

    Kurt Kreiger, the owner of Model Avionics, based in Billings, Montana, says he was listening to the radio and heard a story about the plight of the black-footed ferret. He remembers saying, "I can do that!", when he heard that the scientists were looking for a way to get the vaccine to the animals, and he reached out to offer his assistance.

    But it hasn't been all smooth sailing. The biggest challenge facing the teams, according to Kreiger, was the bait itself. "The inconsistency of size...they (the pellets) weren't exactly the same size, they weren't exactly round, you had to keep them frozen, otherwise they'd get too soft."

    But why peanut butter? Rocke says it was all trial and error. Testing peanut butter, sweet potato and blueberry, she says "peanut butter was the clear favorite!"

    After working with batches and batches of the mix -- which includes peanut butter, corn meal, and gelatin -- Kreiger says they're nearing the finish line. "This is the winner. We're so close right now."

    This summer, teams fanned out across Montana, Colorado and South Dakota, using the drone to fire blue, peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with the vaccine. The US Fish and Wildlife Service called it a success, saying 60% to 90% of the prairie dogs snacked on the pellets.

    The drone, which will go back out with teams next summer for more testing, is about the size of a large truck tire, according to Kreiger.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ryan Moehring says this undertaking is innovative because of how it's being targeted.

    "What's really interesting about this project is that we're not distributing the vaccine pellets for the species that we're trying to save," but instead, targeting the prairie dogs.

    One partner in the effort, the World Wildlife Fund, put together video of the project, and Fish and Wildlife also hosts a webcam of a ferret named Two-bit, who lives at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado.

  • 10/25/2016:  Snakes make your skin crawl? This deadly fungus has the same effect on snakes., Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    By Darryl Fears

    Snakes have a well-earned reputation as silent and deadly killers. But theres another predator that quietly hunts in the wild. Its called snake fungal disease and they appear to be no match for it.

    If the fungus known as SFD continues to devastate snake populations in the United States, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake could soon be a goner, according to a study announced Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey. So could the Louisiana pine snake.

    Some snake populations in the eastern and Midwestern U.S. could eventually face extinction as a result of SFD, Jeff Lorch, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the report, said in a statement released by the agency. Our new findings increase our understanding of the geographic extent, species susceptibility and manner of development of this disease. These results will offer important clues regarding how to manage SFD.

    Bats, toads and snakes have their own Jack the Ripper. Its this fungus.

    The entire timber rattlesnake species found in the coastal southeastern plain isnt as threatened as the other two, but populations in certain areas of the South could disappear, Lorch said. Its not that the disease is lethal enough to take out an entire species of snake; it just helps finish the job that humans have started by expanding into the animals habitat, squeezing it out of its home, and killing it outright.

    This is more a contributor to habitat destruction and purposefully killing snakes. People dont like them, Lorch explained.

    Its true that people generally dont like snakes. Its also true that they dont know how snakes help people. Without them, there would likely be more mice inside homes. They prey on pests insects and other creatures that hurt farm crops. Diseased rodents disappear into their mouths. Snakes in turn are food for other serpents that specialize in eating their kind.

    A broadband water snake in Louisiana showing signs of fungal disease. (Credit: Brad Glorioso)

    Because of SFD, there are fewer of them. Its symptoms thickened skin, ulcers, blisters, lumps, emaciation and disfigured bodies first gained attention in 2006, according to the USGS. It was added to a list of mass killer diseases afflicting reptiles: Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a bat killer, had a lot in common with Chytridiomycosis, a mass killer of frogs and other amphibians. Ophidiomyces is the proper name of the snake slayer.

    Scientists dont know if the fungus is spreading because they dont know where it started or how it expanded. They only know that they keep finding it wherever they look for it. Three years ago they detected it at nine sites. That number has more than doubled.

    This bat-killing fungus leaped from Oklahoma to Washington, and scientists are baffled.

    Between 2009 and last year, scientists examined samples from 82 wild snakes submitted to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin and found that 76 percent had skin abnormalities and were positive for the fungus. It really likes keratin that makes up skin, Lorch said, and its specialized to snakes. The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

    With the help of state natural resources departments in Wisconsin and Minnesota, USGS scientists also captured 206 snakes from those states for two years ending in 2015 as they emerged from hibernation in late April to late May. Forty-one percent of the captured snakes had skin lesions similar to those associated with SFD, and almost all of the lesions were relatively mild. Over half of the samples tested from these snakes were positive for the O. ophiodiicola fungus, the USGS said.

    Lorch said he cant estimate how long it takes for the fungus to kill a snake because their resistance is different. Likewise, he has no idea how long it could take for a species like the eastern massasauga rattlesnake to disappear.

  • 10/18/2016:  Gov't to Boost Monitoring Efforts for AI Through Next April, KBS World Radio
    (Link to the original article)


    The government will boost monitoring activities for avian influenza(AI) ahead of the winter season when migratory birds start to flock to the nation.



    The Environment Ministrys National Institute of Environmental Research will collect some two-thousand fecal samples at 30 key wintering sites of migratory birds across the nation from the middle of this month through next April. The institute will also capture some one-thousand wild birds and carry out an analysis of their biological samples.



    The institute will share the results of its studies with related quarantine organizations, including the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency, while cooperating the governments consultative group on AI, among other institutions.



    If a case of highly pathogenic AI is detected, the institute will be ready to operate a crisis response team within its Environmental Health Research Department.



    The institute will also hold a mock investigation jointly with quarantine experts from the U.S. National Wildlife Health Center for five days starting from next Monday on handling highly pathogenic AI cases.

  • 10/18/2016:  Peanut butter and drones being used in effort to rebuild endangered ferret populations in Montana, KTVH
    (Link to the original article)


    (MTN News-BILLINGS) An unlikely combination of peanut butter and drones has given researchers renewed hope for the future of North Americas rarest mammal, the endangered black-footed ferret.

    The project involves dropping vaccine-laced, peanut butter-flavored baits from drones to vaccinate prairie dogs, the black-footed ferrets primary prey, according to a press release form the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are highly susceptible to sylvatic plague, a non-native disease against which the animals have little natural immunity.

    Once a prairie dog colony is infected with the plague, the disease can quickly spread and devastate the population.

    While captive-raised black-footed ferrets are vaccinated against plague before releasing into the wild, they live only in prairie dog burrows and prey almost exclusively on prairie dogs.

    Without a reliable source of prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets cannot survive. Thats why biologists believe that plague outbreaks are the greatest obstacle to ferret recovery and are developing methods to manage the disease.

    Between 2001 and 2009, researchers at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the University of Wisconsin developed and conducted extensive laboratory trials on an oral vaccine to protect prairie dogs from the sylvatic plague.

    After promising results in the lab, field trials began in 2012 with technicians distributing vaccine baits by hand on 50-acre test plots. The results were promising, and large-scale field trials ensued.

    To test the effectiveness of the vaccine on a broader scale, three mechanized vaccine bait delivery methods were developed.

    The first drops one bait at a time from a drone. The second drops one bait at a time from an all-terrain vehicle. And the third drops three baits simultaneously from an ATV.

    In August 2016, all three prototypes were tested across 1,200 acres of prairie dog colonies on U.L. Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

    The following month, biologists from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge used the two ATV methods to apply the vaccine to 2,000 acres of prairie dog colonies.

    These tests clearly indicated that these new mechanized vaccine delivery methods are practical, efficient, and affordable.

    While these preliminary results are promising, additional work is needed to determine if their application to larger areas can mitigate the lethal impacts of sylvatic plague to maintain sufficiently sized prairie dog colonies capable of supporting healthy black-footed ferret populations.

    The next round of field trials is scheduled for summer 2017, during which time the partnership will fine tune various aspects of the vaccine baits and their delivery mechanisms and test new delivery methods to maximize the technologys ability to treat larger areas.

  • 10/13/2016:  KVR program on chronic wasting disease set for Oct. 19, The County Line
    (Link to the original article)


    As part of its Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will offer a program on chronic wasting disease on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

    Bryan Richards, the emerging-disease coordinator at the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, will talk about disease basics, distribution of chronic wasting disease nationally and in Wisconsin, and recent scientific advances.

    Refreshments will be offered and socializing will begin at 6:30 p.m., and the talk will start at 7 p.m. The program is free and open to the public.

    The program will be at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center, which is at S3661 Hwy. 131, north of La Farge.

  • 10/06/2016:  Time running out to keep wasting disease out of Montana, Montana on the Ground
    (Link to the original article)


    BY LAURA LUNDQUIST

    A dire wildlife disease sits on Montanas doorstep, poised to inundate the states prized herds of deer, elk and moose. As more research exposes the diseases devastating effects, a Montana legislator is sponsoring bills to counter the threat while others renew the call to close Wyomings elk feedgrounds.

    Within the past month, two research papers added to the evidence showing that chronic wasting disease can significantly reduce whitetail deer populations through deaths not only from the disease itself but also other factors because diseased deer are weakened. Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad-cow disease and causes the animals brain to slowly degenerate into a spongy mass and in the meantime, the animal develops abnormal behavior causing it to starve, lose bodily functions and die.

    CWD was first identified in captive mule deer in a Colorado research facility in 1967. Since then it has spread to 23 states and parts of Canada. Montana is unaffected so far but is sandwiched between infected populations in Canada and Wyoming.

    The disease is spread through prions, a single protein that can end up on the grass and other forage that ungulates eat. The proteins bind to the plants and the soil and cannot be destroyed. The Colorado Division of Wildlife was unable to eliminate CWD from their research facility even after treating the soil with chlorine, removing the treated soil, and applying an additional chlorine treatment before letting the facility remain vacant for more than a year.

    So once it becomes established, just like other invasive species, it becomes impossible to eradicate. Animals that eat infested plants get the disease and then spread it to other plants and soils through contact or their urine or feces. Since CWD has been in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado for about four decades, the prions have spread throughout regions frequented by deer and elk.

    Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, doesnt want prions spreading into Montana and causing deer and elk herds to die off. Montanas mule deer herds are just beginning to rebound after a 2013 outbreak of blue tongue, and many of our moose herds are struggling for unknown reasons.

    So Phillips has requested bill drafts for a joint resolution urging Wyoming to discontinue its elk feedlots, and a study resolution to take stock of the potential for CWD to negatively affect Montanas ungulate populations.

    Evidence is mounting that CWD would take its toll in Montana.

    A Colorado State University study published at the end of August tracked 175 Wyoming whitetails in the Laramie Mountains over seven years and found that one third were eventually infected with CDW, although does had a higher rate of infection, around 42 percent compared to 29 percent of bucks.

    Of the 118 deer that died during the study, almost half were infected. Hunters killed 46 deer and 19 of those were infected, which the authors said is higher than expected based upon the infection rate in the overall population.

    The behavioral shifts, including movement patterns, changes in breeding behavior during harvest, decreased reaction time to stimuli, and changes in habitat type used by CWD-positive mule deer may have caused biased harvest proportions, said lead author David Edmunds.

    Nor surprisingly, the scientists found that deer with chronic wasting disease were more than 4 times more likely to die than healthy deer, based upon modeling that factored in a number of possible influences sex, age, movement and disease. Combined with hunting losses, they predicted the population would be wiped out within 50 years. That stunned the researchers considering that whitetail deer reproduce more easily than mule deer, elk or moose.

    These results support concerns of wildlife managers, wildlife disease experts, and conservationists that this endemic (chronic) disease can negatively impact deer population sustainability at high disease prevalence, Edmunds said.

    This week, another scientific paper published by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at CWD in whitetails in Wisconsin and Illinois, where the disease appeared more recently. Contrary to the Wyoming study, they found that bucks have 3 times more risk of infection and more bucks died of the disease. Other studies have found similar results. The authors suggested transmission of CWD among male deer during the non-breeding season may be a potential mechanism for producing higher rates of infection in males.

    Edmunds said he may have found more infected females in Wyoming because the resident herds congregate more in particular areas that have, over time, built up high loads of the disease. So CWD might be too new to Wisconsin to have developed the pattern.

    In other words, perhaps our study population is an indicator of things to come, where initially bucks experience higher incidence until a threshold is met when (females) experience higher CWD incidence, Edmunds said. For wide-ranging and dispersed populations, bucks may always experience higher incidence than females.

    Animals in dispersed populations have a reduced chance of coming in contact with diseased areas. But in feedgrounds such as those near Jackson Hole, Wyo., animals become concentrated. If even one sick elk arrives, thousands of animals could become infected within weeks. That's why the feedgrounds pose the biggest risk to Montana. Since many of those elk migrate north toMontana, CWD could become established in the state within a year.

    Wyoming has been reluctant to shut the feedgrounds down. Elk might go elsewhere and cause property damage. But aiding the spread of CWD could cause more damage.

    Thats the warning the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance tried to convey in their comments to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in January when the agency was rewriting its CWD Management Plan.

    In spite of mounting evidence, Wyoming Game and Fish calls models showing rapid disease spread on the feedgrounds a worst-case scenario. The Alliance urged the agency to be proactive.

    A prudent solution would be to begin reducing reliance on supplemental feed through a rigorous program before it becomes a management crisis, the Alliance wrote. We request that Wyoming solicit and incorporate comments from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in considering these interstate transmissions and what could likely be a route for CWD entering those states via Wyoming transmission routes.

    The final CWD Management plan published in April states Wyoming will prioritize identification and removal of diseased animals from feedgrounds and will work with agencies to manage wintering populations and reduce their reliance on supplemental feed. But it will consider closing only those feedgrounds where dispersing elk will not cause property damage and makes no mention of coordinating with FWP.

  • 09/23/2016:  3 dozen baby birds found dead in park in Portland, Boston Globe
    (Link to the original article)


    By Olivia Quintana GLOBE CORRESPONDENT SEPTEMBER 23, 2016

    Residents are perplexed after the deaths of three dozen juvenile herring gulls in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, Maine over the past month.

    It is common to find wildlife in parks, so we do pick up dead birds here and there, Ethan Hipple, the Portland parks director, said. My staff is used to that, but they started finding two or three or four a day, which is very unusual, so we started tracking it.

    Hipple said the birds, which were all hatched within the last year, were found in the same spot.

    So we wanted to make sure it was not related to the water quality or that someone was poisoning the birds, Hipple said. We just wanted to take precautions because there are a lot of people and other animals who go through there.

    Luckily, Hipple said, initial testing suggests the birds were not poisoned or shot and that if they are suffering from a disease, it is not communicable.

    Judy Camuso, director of wildlife for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said groups of animal deaths similar to this are not uncommon.

    It is not uncommon at all, particularly in nesting birds, Camuso said. Often its not something people see. But because this is in an urban area, we wanted people to be aware.

    Camuso explained that the herring gulls group together when they are young and this can easily transmit diseases.

    These birds are what we call colonial nesters, so theyre closer together than a lot of birds people are familiar with, Camuso said. If one of them gets sick, very often it spreads more readily than with other species.

    Camuso said her department has sent several of the birds to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for further testing.

    Hopefully, they will be able to determine exactly what caused this, Camuso said

  • 09/13/2016:  Arizona Researchers Test Edible Plague Vaccine for Prairie Dogs, knau.org
    (Link to the original article)


    Prairie dogs are everywhere in northern Arizona, and so is the plague. The flea-borne disease can destroy whole colonies of prairie dogs, and that has big consequences for ecosystems. Because its impractical to vaccinate wild animals, biologists are trying out an edible plague vaccine. Its a tasty kibble that prairie dogs cant resist.

    Listen Listening...2:56

    The first step was figuring out what prairie dogs like to eat.

    Jennifer Cordova, wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, says, They found in the lab that prairie dogs loved peanut butter.

    Cordova is running field trials of the first edible vaccine for sylvatic plague, the animal version of the Black Death. Its really detrimental to prairie dogs, she says. You can have up to 100 percent mortality if plague goes through a site.

    Thats bad for all the animals that dine on prairie dogssuch as the endangered black footed ferretand for humans who can get the plague from fleas. Thats why Cordova and a couple dozen volunteers scattered the experimental kibbles on Espee Ranch in the grasslands northwest of Williams. Theyre studying two different prairie dog colonies. Its a blind study, says Cordova. One site has a placebo and one site actually has the vaccine, and we dont know which is which.

    The volunteers pull on rubber gloves to handle prairie dogs. They pluck whiskers, draw blood, and comb the fur to roust out any fleas.

    Nicholas Riso, one of the volunteers, says, Were capturing these prairie dogs and testing them for fleasweve been picking fleas off these guys all daygetting their blood strips, getting as much information as we can.

    That information goes to Tonie Rocke at the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Rocke spent 15 years inventing the edible vaccine. She says its dyed bright pink, so it luminesces; you see it within a day of an animal ingesting something that has this dye in it, she explains. It glows where it occurs.

    Glowing whiskers tell Rocke if the animals eaten the bait. She also checks the fleas and blood samples for signs of the plague.

    Were learning a lot about plague ecology, which is another big benefit of this kind of a study, Rocke says. Were definitely learning a lot more about how its transmitted and how animals behave in the face of an outbreak.

    Arizonas an important test site, because plague is common here. Wildlife biologist Holly Hicks says a few years ago the disease swept through the grasslands where theyre running the experiment. One of the prairie dog colonies was left untouched.

    We figure thats a really good sign that this vaccine is working, Hicks says.

    The edible vaccine can be quickly scattered by field researchers or even by drones. Hicks says thats a big step toward keeping this nonnative disease in check. Once the prairie dogs die the fleas are just looking for the next host, she says. Ive always considered the prairie dog like the canary in the coal mine. If you see a prairie dog one week and the next week theres nothing there you know youve got a problem on the landscape.

    This is the fourth and final year of the field trials. Next the researchers want to find out if the vaccine will work on related animals that carry the plague, such as wood rats and rock squirrels.

  • 09/09/2016:  Imported: A rabies-like virus that could kill amphibians, Undark
    (Link to the original article)


    When it comes to pets, most people think of cats and dogs, but amphibians are also a popular choice in the U.S. Millions of live salamanders, frogs, and toads are imported every year, mostly from Asia and South America. Not surprisingly, the containers they arrive in can serve as a breeding ground for foreign pathogens. Those pathogens pose a threat not only to the animals inside, but possibly to domestic amphibians as well.

    North Americas amphibian populations have sustained major losses in the last few decades, mainly due to habitat destruction, but also in part due to the introduction of diseases spread through the global food, scientific, and pet trades. Nearly a third of amphibian species are currently threatened and a new finding suggests that they may now face a new and lethal foreign pathogen in the same family as the rabies virus. Spring viremia of carp virus, or SVCV, has not previously been known to infect amphibians.

    This was totally unexpected, says Hon Ip, head of diagnostic virology at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who helped discover the pathogen. This is the first-ever detection of rhabdovirus in amphibians, alerting us that imported animals are susceptible to this class of viruses and need to be closely monitored for infection.

    Ip and his colleagues describe their findings in a paper published this week in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections.

    In August 2015, a large shipment of Chinese firebelly newts imported to the U.S. from Hong Kong were screened for disease. (The animals small and striking, with blazing red-orange bellies are a favorite in pet stores because theyre easy to care for.) When they arrived, the importer swabbed the skins of 75 surviving newts and sent the samples to the National Wildlife Health Center, along with the bodies of 11 newts that had died during shipment.

    In the Madison lab, cell cultures of the swab samples tested negative for three known lethal pathogens ranavirus and two types of fungi: Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, and Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal. But when researchers examined tissue from the dead newts under the microscope, they found the bullet-shaped rhabdovirus. Genetic analysis at the U.S. Department of Agricultures National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, revealed the virus identity: it was a Chinese strain of SVCV that has caused deadly outbreaks in Asian carp near the province where the imported newts had been collected.

    In fish, SVCV sometimes causes symptoms including lethargy, discolored skin, pale gills, swelling and popped-out eyes, as well as organ damage, which often leads to death. SVCV spreads from fish to fish through infected water and mud, entering the body through the gills.

    American agriculture experts are particularly worried about SVCVs ability to infect other species of wild and farmed fish particularly rainbow trout, tilapia, minnows, and pike whose loss would be a huge blow to the fishing industry. But experts like Ip say its also important to consider how the virus might harm North Americas wild amphibians. Losing them would mean a loss of an enormous amount of amphibian biodiversity, Ip says.

    U.S. Geological Survey experts are not sure how SVCV presents itself in amphibians: The newts in which they made the discovery were frozen and thawed several times while being analyzed. This compromised the bodies cell and tissue integrity, making it hard for scientists to get a full picture of SVCVs pathology in the newts under the microscope.

    Jonathan Kolby, an amphibian expert who has also screened imported pets as part of his own research on the fungus Bd, and ranavirus, said the discovery of SVCV in newts was an important finding, though he added that he wasnt surprised. We need to acknowledge the fact that we now live in a globalized world, an age of emerging diseases, he said. Agencies need more cooperation, working together systematically in order to successfully detect and respond to amphibian disease outbreaks.

    Ranavirus and Bd, both foreign pathogens, have sickened and killed thousands of amphibians across North America for decades, and Bsal, which was likely carried into Europe from Asia via the global pet trade, remains a looming threat. As a result, several months after the August 2015 shipment of newts arrived in the U.S. (but before SVCV was detected), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a ban on the importation of 201 amphibian species to the U.S., and also on their transportation across state lines to help prevent the potential spread of disease to and within the U.S.

    So the U.S. Geological Survey researchers, assisted by several other American wildlife health agencies, have turned their attention to studying SVCV in the lab, and continue to sample wild amphibians for disease.

    Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer based in New York. She covers wildlife and the environment, and specializes in biology, conservation, and policy.

  • 08/22/2016:  Deadly bat fungus in Washington likely originated in Eastern US, The News Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    A bat-killing fungus recently detected for the first time in western North America is genetically similar to strains found in the eastern United States. It did not likely originate in Eurasia, according to a study published in the journal mSphere.

    That discovery will have implications for wildlife managers battling the spread of the disease white-nose syndrome in North American bats.

    Results from a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service provide clues about the origin of this strain of the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus. The fungus causes white-nose syndrome and was recently found on a bat near North Bend, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection in Nebraska. Because the fungus is also present in Eurasia and North Bend is near international ports, the scientists studied DNA from the Washington fungus to determine if it had roots abroad.

    Although it remains unclear how (the fungus) reached Washington, this finding guides us to look to North America as the source, Jonathan Sleeman, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, said in a news release. Now that (the fungus) has been identified in the western U.S., its critical to continue working with resource managers to help conserve imperiled bat species, which are worth billions of dollars per year to North American agriculture and forestry.

    In March, a small brown bat found sick near North Bend tested positive for the syndrome after the animal had died. Following this discovery, the wildlife health center provided DNA from the fungus on the bats skin to a laboratory at the Forest Services Northern Research Station for genetic analysis.

    Scientists at the research station sequenced DNA from multiple strains of the fungus, including the fungus cultured from the Washington bat, and determined it most closely matched strains from eastern North America.

    White-nose syndrome was first documented in New York in 2006 and has rapidly spread westward in North America to neighboring states and into Canada. The disease has killed millions of insect-eating bats and threatens several formerly abundant bat species with extinction, according to the news release.

    Based on the current understanding of the distribution of the fungus in North America, scientists cannot determine if the fungus reached Washington from the east by bat movements or through human activities. However, ongoing surveillance efforts coordinated through the multiagency response effort continues to provide insights on the spread of WNS, the impacts of this disease on bat populations and the potential for population recovery.

    These results confirm that (the fungus) is capable of movement far across North America. They do not, however, change the importance of taking precautions to reduce the risk of spread by humans, Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in the release. Theres much we dont know about how (the fungus) will affect populations of western bats, so it is critical to limit spread as much as possible until we can improve survival of susceptible bats.

    White-nosed syndrome is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

    Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/outdoors/article95820907.html#storylink=cpy

  • 08/05/2016:  Scientists consider starvation or illness in eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca bird die-off, Peninsula Daily News
    (Link to the original article)


    PORT TOWNSEND Scientists are getting closer to understanding why hundreds of rhinoceros auklets, a seabird closely related to puffins, have been found dead in the eastern part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    They may have starved.

    About 400 emaciated birds have washed ashore on beaches west of Port Angeles, near Victoria, and as far east as Whidbey Island since May, said conservation biologist Peter Hodum, an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound.

    Possible pneumonia

    Necropsies of some of the birds performed by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center showed the birds may have died from bacterial pneumonia.

    What isnt clear is whether they first caught pneumonia then starved, or if the birds couldnt find food and then became more susceptible to pneumonia, Hodum said.

    Hodum, one of the scientists looking into the deaths, originally believed the birds breeding on the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge west of Port Townsend was going as usual.

    Everything led us to believe it was going to be a perfectly fine season, he said.

    Last week, Hodum visited the island to check on the growing chicks and found this year was anything but normal.

    Most chicks were three to four weeks behind their typical development, he said. That suggests a shortage in the food supply.

    He also found a high number of dead chicks, he said.

    It appears to be the lowest chick survival rate Hodum has seen in the past several years.

    An estimate of the chicks survival rate on Protection Island for this year falls between 54 percent and 77 percent. The lower estimate is much more realistic, Hodum said.

    Even under the optimistic fledging success scenario, 2016 ranks as the worst fledging success recorded since we began monitoring in 2006, he said.

    When Hodum was on Protection Island last week, he found that the fish the parents are bringing to their chicks are much smaller than they normally would be this time of year.

    Typically at this time, parents would be bringing large sandlance and medium to large herring for their chicks to eat, he said.

    This suggests they are struggling to find their preferred food to feed their chicks at this stage of the season, he said.

    What is unknown is if the chicks mortality is related to the adults dying, he said.

    Hodum said members of the public should use caution if they see the birds on the beach, whether they are alive or dead.

    It isnt yet known if the bacterial pneumonia can be transmitted to humans. The birds are being tested for avian influenza.

    The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team has asked the public to allow its hundreds of trained volunteers who monitor beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to deal with the birds.

    Discovery Bay Wild Bird Rescue in Port Townsend is asking people who find live birds to contact them at 360-379-0802 if they find live birds.

    Cindy Daily, a licensed rehabilitator who runs the bird rescue, said she may be able to rehabilitate the seabirds.

    Daily said earlier this week that she had rehabilitated a sickly rhinoceros auklet found in Port Angeles about two weeks ago.

    It was just very very skinny, but now its doing great, she said. Its going to recover and be released.

  • 08/04/2016:  They have a body and a killer. But the case of the dead brown bat makes no sense to scientists., The Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    The federal governments animalCSIinvestigative team has finished its work, and now its official. White nose syndrome, the

    mass killer of bats from the East Coast to Oklahoma, somehow afflicted a little brown bat in the Cascade Mountains region of

    Washington.

    That shouldnt have been possible. Bats only fly so far, and its taken the fungus 11 years to spread 1,500 miles from Albany,

    N.Y., where it was first detected. So how did it suddenly jump another 1,300 miles from Oklahoma to the Cascades?

    The question might not be answered for months. But whats certain, according to the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife

    Health Center in Madison, Wisc., is that the fungus on the Washington bat matches the Pseudogymnoascus destructans that

    has killed at least 7 million bats in the East and the Midwest. The USGS announced the results Wednesday.

    The notion that this could happen was so outlandish that scientists considered a variety of other explanations. They wondered if

    the fungus were a different strain brought from elsewhere in the world by a traveler whod unknowingly tracked it, or if it were

    some kind of clone of the original fungus. A DNA analysis put those theories to rest.

    Although it remains unclear how Pseudogymnoascus destructans reached Washington, this finding guides us to look to

    North America as the source, said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the National Wildlife Health Center.

    Heres why that sends chills up the spines of bat biologists and the closeknit groups of regular people who love the animals.

    White nose kills much of what it touches not only little brown bats, which enter caves and mines for their annual winter

    migration and never fly out, but also big brown bats, Indiana bats and a host of others. In Pennsylvania, more than 95 percent of

    little brown bats were gone in 2012.

    More than likely, the number of dead bats has surpassed the 7 million estimate that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered

    that year. The agency dialed down talk of the estimate because it was challenged and proving the number was hard. But over the

    that year. The agency dialed down talk of the estimate because it was challenged and proving the number was hard. But over the

    last five years, bats have only continued to die, with no cure in sight.

    Added to the mystery of how white nose first reached the United States, and how to kill it, is how it reached Washington

    unnoticed.

    Every single avenue we look at seems far fetched, Greg Falxa, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and

    Wildlife, said in April after the dying bat was found by a hiker. This bat had the deterioration already, which suggests the

    fungus didnt just get here this year. Who knows how it got here? Everything is speculation right now.

    The speculation continues. But the reality is clear, and grim, conservationists say.

    Ithink this is really bad, Katie Gillies, director of the Imperiled Species Program at Bat Conservation International in Texas,

    said this spring. I really do think this is a big leap. Now were going to see it radiate from that new point. Its like having breast

    cancer and finding that its metastasized.

  • 08/03/2016:  Should Olympic Sport Shooting Events Stop Using Lead Shot?, Inside Science
    (Link to the original article)


    Scientists argue non-toxic alternatives such as steel would keep many tons of lead out of the environment each year.

    (Inside Science) -- At this year's Olympic Games, skeet shooter Kim Rhode will be aiming to make history. Again. In 2012 in London, she became the first American athlete to medal in five consecutive Olympics in an individual sport. In Rio, she'll be shooting for six out of six.

    Rhode will be focused on firing her shotgun at the clay pigeons whizzing through the air, but some scientists have set their sights on another target -- the lead pellets from spent cartridges that tumble out of the sky along with the shards of clay.

    At many outdoor shooting ranges worldwide, they argue, the lead shot is often left where it falls, potentially contaminating water as well as posing a toxic risk to the creatures that ingest it.

    Currently, five Olympic events -- men's and women's skeet and trap and men's double trap --require lead shot, which is composed of tiny orbs that shatter clay targets more easily than single bullets. (Lead bullets and airgun pellets, used in rifle and pistol events, are typically shot into special traps behind the targets, and, for the most part, don't enter the environment.)

    The lead shot can pose a particular danger to birds, which may mistake the pellets for food or "grit," small stones they consume to aid digestion.

    Concerned about these potential environmental threats, a team of researchers has urged the International Olympic Committee to require non-toxic, lead-free gunshot for Olympic events and qualifications.

    It's not the shooting events during the Olympics that pose the real environmental hazard, but the extensive training and qualification events between the games, said Vernon Thomas, a retired wildlife biologist from the University of Guelph in Ontario and one of the main proponents of a lead shot ban. While only a handful of athletes compete in the Olympics and the spent pellets are now collected and recycled, outdoor shooting ranges where athletes train often leave pellets on the ground because of the cost and difficulty of recovering them, he says.

    "Think of it as an enormous pyramid," said Thomas. At the tip, there are the Olympic shooters. "But below that, you have all the hopefuls in all of the nations across four years who are hoping to become Olympic shooters," he said. (In Rio, 390 athletes from 97 countries have qualified to participate in the shooting sport events.)

    In a study in the journal AMBIO in 2013, Thomas and his colleague Raimon Guitart, a toxicologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, estimated that an individual athlete training for the Olympics fires off about 1,000 cartridges a week, which translates to a little over a ton of lead entering the environment every year. (An article from 2011 in the New York Times reported that Rhode's training involves shooting 500 to 1,000 rounds each day, typically seven days a week.)

    In all, thousands of tons of lead shot are discharged by Olympic shooters during training, according to the study.

    "I wasn't aware of the issue with lead shot's use in Olympic shooting sports. That was under my radar ... I think Thomas builds a pretty good case that there's significant concern," said Barnett Rattner, a United States Geological Survey ecotoxicologist in Beltsville, Maryland who has studied the effects of lead shot on wildlife in hunting.

    According to the Olympic Charter, "the IOC's role is ... to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly."

    Requiring shooters to use lead shot, said Thomas, is out of step with those goals.

    According to Thomas, he's alerted the IOC to his research over the years, from 1993 to 2000 and again in 2013, including sharing one of his papers, published in the journal Environmental Policy and Law that detailed policy options for the IOC for dealing with lead shot at the Olympics.

    In his last communication with them, he said, the IOC maintained that the issue was not for them to deal with and suggested any further correspondence be sent to the International Shooting Sport Federation, the organization that oversees all Olympic sport shooting, which is based in Munich.

    When reached for this story, the IOC responded similarly, writing in an email that the ISSF should be contacted directly, "as they are responsible for their rules and regulations of their sport at the Games."

    In an email, Marco Dalla Dea, an ISSF media officer, wrote that the federation was "very familiar" with the topic. But, he continued, "there are currently no suitable, affordable alternatives to lead shot for shotgun competition events."

    Ammunition manufacturers do make non-toxic alternatives including shot made out of other metals such as bismuth, tungsten and steel.

    But, opponents say, those shot loads are more expensive than lead, less effective at breaking the clay targets, and potentially damaging to the gun because the metals are harder than lead.

    Thomas disagrees. "Here is a sport that can make an easy transition to non-toxic shot, particularly steel shot, without upsetting the nature of the sport," he said. "I've done a large amount of clay target shooting with steel shot, so I know of what I speak."

    According to Tom Roster, an independent shotgun ballistics expert in Oregon, the cost of producing steel shot used to be more expensive than lead, but that's not the case anymore. That's because the overall world demand for lead has been increasing for at least a decade, effectively erasing the difference in cost, he said.

    As for performance, "there's nothing in practice or that's ever been tested that shows that steel pellets of the right size are inferior to lead pellets for breaking these clay targets," he added.

    The shot won't ruin modern guns either, he said, in part because a piece of plastic or biodegradable material called a wad encapsulates the shot and protects the gun's barrel.

    "There's really nothing to worry about," he said. "It's just fear of the unknown."

    Milton Friend, a retired wildlife biologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin who has worked on issues of lead poisoning in wildlife from lead ammo used in target shooting and hunting since the 1970s, made the same argument. "The non-toxic shot that's made today is of superior quality," he said.

    In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Friend shot in rifle events as a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, which supplied shooters for international competitions such as the Olympics. He didn't participate in the games, but a number of his teammates did. While he recalled his former teammates fondly, the same couldn't be said about the lead.

    "I wasn't concerned about lead shot back then. I didn't know any better," he said. "When you start working on it and getting involved with hundreds and thousands of birds dying needlessly, it gets to you."

    Rather than banning lead shot in shooting sports, the ISSF works with its member federations "to develop and promote lead management best practices," said Dalla Dea.

    The Environmental Protection Agency provides a guide that details such practices.

    "In the old days, there was no clean up," said Roster. But now, "clay target ranges do whats called lead shot mining," contracting with companies that collect and sort the pellets to sell as reclaimed lead shot, he said.

    Still, said Thomas, many outdoor shooting ranges are on land that isn't suitable for other human uses -- over water, wetlands, or rough ground -- from which "it is virtually impossible to reclaim the lead."

    He did note that at several large ranges in the U.S., the shooting takes place over very flat, sandy soil including where the national trap shooting events are held every year. There, it's possible to use mechanical harvesters to pick up the shot, but those locations are the exception, not the norm, he said.

    Even though an enormous amount of clay target shooting takes place worldwide, Thomas has continued to focus on the Olympics, hoping that a win at its level "would be a very strong precedent for demanding or requiring similar actions in other sporting events," he said.

    Despite the lack of response from the IOC, Thomas and his colleagues, who fund their own research, aren't giving up.

    Earlier this year, Thomas and Guitart published another paper in Environmental Policy and Law urging the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Health Organization to "promote a global reduction of lead use in hunting and outdoor shooting." Such a move would improve the health of humans and wildlife, they argued, and align with the organizations' extensive efforts to reduce lead -- from gasoline, paints and other sources -- in the environment.

    The UNEP, which partners with the IOC to incorporate environmental issues into the Olympics, did not respond to requests for comment.

    For his part, Friend, who is 80, is still hoping to see a change in his lifetime.

  • 06/03/2016:  Deadly white-nose syndrome found in Rhode Island bats, The Westerly Sun
    (Link to the original article)


    KINGSTON A tri-colored bat that had been hibernating in Newport County has tested positive for white-nose syndrome, the first case of the fungal disease to be documented in Rhode Island.

    The discovery brings the number of states reporting the fungus to 29.

    Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologist Charlie Brown said losses to bat populations are devastating because of the role they play in the ecosystem.

    Bats are important predators of insects, many of which could be detrimental to agriculture, he said. Just think if you take six million insect-eaters out of the equation, that arent on the landscape anymore, what impact thats going to have on insect populations. Theyre fascinating creatures. People should care about them.

    Brown said he discovered the infected bat and two additional sites where the soil was contaminated with the fungus last February while taking part in a national study for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center.

    Theyre coordinating surveillance throughout the United States, Brown said of the USGS. Other states are doing similar testing with the kits provided by them.

    David Blehert is the branch chief of the diagnostic laboratories at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. The center investigates and documents all unusual wildlife deaths throughout the United States.

    We run a national wildlife disease investigation response program for the whole country, so white-nose syndrome is only one of the things we do, but we get shipments in of carcasses from all 50 states on a daily basis, he said. Our turnaround time for white-nose syndrome is less than a week from the point at which we receive those carcasses.

    Rhode Island does not have a large population of hibernating bats, because there are no caves or abandoned mines in the state. Blehert said that lack of hibernating sites, or hibernacula, is probably the reason it took longer to detect white-nose fungus here.

    Thats why I think youve seen the delay, he said. The entire northeastern United States has been fairly consistently positive for white-nose syndrome since about 2010. The easiest way to gain early detection of white-nose syndrome is to survey bats in underground hibernacula where they congregate and can be relatively easy to find and visible, and so the lack of large, underground hibernacula in Rhode Island makes it more difficult to that type of surveillance.

    In the absence of caves, bats that hibernate in Rhode Island do so in man-made structures, all of which are in Newport County. Researchers will not disclose the exact locations of the hibernation sites.

    We tested four sites where we have known bats to hibernate, and three of those sites confirmed the presence of the fungus, Brown said.

    Rhode Island has several species of bats. Some, like the little brown bat, the big brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-colored bat hibernate. Other species, the red, silver-haired and hoary hats, migrate to warmer states in the winter.

    To deal with a lack of food and unfavorable climatic conditions, they do one of two things: they either hibernate during that period or they migrate, Brown said. People refer to cave bats, those bats that typically hibernate during the winter. They may migrate short distances, a few miles to a couple of hundred miles, to go to the appropriate place.

    Then you have tree bats, which in our area we have three species. They typically migrate south to warmer climates in the wintertime, and they may or may not hibernate when they go to the southeast, because its not terribly warm there necessarily. They roost in trees.

    White-nose syndrome, named for the white, powdery fungus that appears on the muzzles, forelegs and wings of infected bats, was discovered in New York State in 2006 and has killed approximately six million bats. The population of little brown bats, once common in Rhode Island, has been decimated by the disease, and northern long-eared bat numbers have declined to the point where it is now listed as a threatened species.

    Blehert said although the disease is called white-nose syndrome, it is most damaging to bats wings.

    Their wings are specialized organs, very thin, delicate membrane, he said. In addition to being necessary for the bat to fly, intact wing skin, especially during hibernations, is very important for maintaining physiological balance during hibernation. The wing membrane itself represents 85 percent of the skin on all of the bat, so when you start compromising that membrane during the time when bats are hibernating and not eating and drinking, they can start losing water and electrolytes through their wings. It can impact the ability of CO2 carbon dioxide to diffuse through their wings.

    When their hibernation is disturbed, bats burn through their fat reserves and emerge from hibernation too soon.

    We find them on the landscape, perhaps having died from exposure or starvation, Blehert said.

    The severity of the impact of white-nose syndrome and the speed with which it has spread have resulted in one of the most significant wildlife die-offs in recent years.

    Its perhaps one of the more significant die-offs to occur in the 20th and 21st centuries, Blehert said.

  • 06/01/2016:  Government researchers seek to save North American salamanders, ModernReaders
    (Link to the original article)


    Theres a reason why biologist Evan Grant and other government researchers are stalking salamanders. And that reason, in brief, is to save the Eastern red-spotted newt from a type of fungus. These moves come after several reports emerged of salamander populations in Europe falling victim to the deadly fungus.

    According to Grant, the Eastern red-spotted newt is being threatened by the presence of fungus in its natural habitat, with that specific fungus having been responsible for gutting frog and toad populations in various parts of the globe. The BSAL fungus, known scientifically as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, had also attacked European salamanders in 2013, and after that, researchers discovered that the fungus was also threatening species in the U.S.

    To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier in 2016 an embargo on 201 salamander species, due to the risk of bringing the fungus over to America. The government agency is pushing to make it a permanent ban, and with a public comment period for this move having just expired, the ball is in their court as they prepare to make a final decision in the near future.

    We have the highest biodiversity of salamanders in the world, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for fish and aquatic conservation David Hoskins. We were concerned that once the fungus reaches the United States, if it was introduced into wild populations, it could become established and spread and potentially wipe out important species of salamanders.

    Meanwhile, Grant has been doing his part as a member of the U.S. Geological Surveys Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, working overtime to catch redspotted newts he finds in the East Coast. He has been checking the salamanders for infections, and reporting back to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, sending back samples to that agency. So far, neither he nor his fellow USGS colleagues have found any sign of BSAL in any of the one thousand or so salamanders they have sampled, but the search is still pushing forward and far from being complete.

    Salamanders are, of course, much smaller than most other endangered or threatened species such as tigers and bears. But hard as they are to spot, as Grant and other USGS researchers can attest to, they play a key role in our environment. They control insect populations in damp forests and smaller bodies of water, helping provide food for other animals. So any harm to the salamander would, in turn, affect other species as well. Thats something more evident in Europe, where the BSAL fungus has done serious harm to salamander populations.

    Very few animals are left, lamented Belgian professor An Martel, who had previously found BSAL on salamanders in the Netherlands. It has had a huge impact. The populations where the fungus is present are almost gone. We (cannot) find any salamanders anymore.

  • 05/31/2016:  Stalking a newt to protect a species, Boston Globe
    (Link to the original article)


    NEW YORK Warren Pond in southern Connecticut, bordered by shady oaks and maples, is a lovely place to fish for bass or sunfish. Or, if the mood strikes you, to hunt the Eastern red-spotted newt.

    Why one would want to hunt newts is a valid question. But for Evan Grant, who was stalking the banks of Warren Pond this month, scanning the water through polarized sunglasses, the answer is that many species of salamander in the United States, including the newts he was seeking, may be on the brink of a deadly fungal assault, much like one that has devastated some frog and toad populations worldwide.

    In 2013, scientists discovered that a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, commonly known as Bsal, was attacking salamanders in Europe. Researchers later determined that species in the United States were vulnerable to the infection. And earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily banned the import of 201 species of salamanders that pose a danger of carrying the fungus into the United States.

    In the meantime, the US Geological Survey is monitoring vulnerable salamander populations to catch any early signs of infection. So far, researchers have not found evidence of Bsal.

    Grant, a research wildlife biologist with the agencys Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, has spent much of the last month in New England, catching red-spotted newts, swabbing their skin to check for infections, and sending samples to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

    In mid-May, he put on rubber boots and shouldered a long-handled dip net to explore the pond, in Newtown, Connecticut, with Adrianne Brand, a wildlife biologist who is also with the initiative.

    Newts, and salamanders in general, do not simply grow from egg to adult the way mammals or reptiles do. They have several stages, from egg to larva to adult, and in any given species, they may skip a stage, change whether they live in water or on land, grow lungs or stick with gills. Some absorb oxygen through their skin, and skip both lungs and gills. Newts, in particular, are like ecological utility infielders, switching habitats and physiology depending on what is needed for the game of staying alive.

    The two researchers found no newts in the pond, so they moved on to a swampy patch in the woods of Paugussett State Forest, down a hillside from a suburban cul-de-sac. The water, about knee high, was dark with detritus and bracketed by thickets.

    After a few minutes of swishing his net through the water, which ran over the top of his boots, Grant called out, Yo! Newt!

    The catch was about 3 inches long, identifiable as a male because of the shape of its tail and rough patches on the inside of its hind legs, with a dark greenish brown color and red spots that warn predators of toxins in the skin.

    He swabbed the skin and snipped off the ends of the swabs for testing.

    The two biologists also stalked newts at ponds in Vermonts Green Mountain National Forest, trapping as many as 30 in small nets or wire traps resting on the lake bottom.

    The United States is considered a global treasure trove of salamander diversity, and the USGS study is concentrating on sampling a few areas that have species like the newt, known to be vulnerable to Bsal.

    Salamanders may serve as a kind of early warning system for environmental problems, and they are deeply embedded in forest ecosystems, so their reduction could have unpredictable consequences.

  • 05/30/2016:  How, and why, to hunt the red-spotted newt, The New York Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Warren Pond in southern Connecticut, bordered by shady oaks and maples, is a lovely place to fish for bass or sunfish. Or, if the mood strikes you, to hunt the Eastern red-spotted newt.

    Why one would want to hunt newts is a valid question. But for Evan Grant, who was stalking the banks of Warren Pond this month, scanning the water through polarized sunglasses, the answer is that many species of salamander in the United States, including the newts he was seeking, may be on the brink of a deadly fungal assault, much like one that has devastated some frog and toad populations worldwide.

    In 2013, scientists discovered that a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, commonly known as Bsal, was attacking salamanders in Europe. Researchers later determined that species in the United States were vulnerable to the infection. And earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily banned the import of 201 species of salamanders that pose a danger of carrying the fungus into the United States.

    The wildlife service has proposed a permanent ban, and just finished a public comment period on that proposal. The service will make a final decision in the coming months.

    In the meantime, the United States Geological Survey is monitoring vulnerable salamander populations to catch any early signs of infection. So far, researchers have not found evidence of Bsal.

    Dr. Grant, a research wildlife biologist with the agencys Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, has been up and down the East Coast catching red-spotted newts, swabbing their skin to check for infections and sending samples to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    In mid-May, he put on rubber boots and shouldered a long-handled dip net to explore the pond, in Newtown, Conn., with Adrianne Brand, a wildlife biologist who is also with the initiative.

    Not that anyone really needs a reason. Newts, and salamanders in general, are just plain cool.

    They dont simply grow from egg to adult the way mammals or reptiles do. They have several stages, from egg to larva to adult, and in any given species, they may skip a stage, change whether they live in water or on land, grow lungs or stick with gills. Some absorb oxygen through their skin, and skip both lungs and gills. Newts, in particular, are like ecological utility infielders, switching habitats and physiology depending on what is needed for the game of staying alive.

    The two researchers found no newts in the pond, so they moved on to a swampy patch in the woods of Paugussett State Forest, down a hillside from a suburban cul-de-sac. The water, about knee high, was dark with detritus, and surrounded by thickets.

    After a few minutes of swishing his net through the water, which ran over the top of his boots, Dr. Grant called out, Yo! Newt!

    The catch was about three inches long, identifiable as a male because of the shape of its tail and rough patches on the inside of its hind legs, with a dark greenish brown color and red spots that warn predators of toxins in the skin.

    He swabbed the skin and snipped off the ends of the swabs for testing.

    The United States is considered a global treasure trove of salamander diversity, and the U.S.G.S. study is concentrating on sampling a few areas that have species like the newt, known to be vulnerable to Bsal, and are close to ports where animals in the pet trade are imported, like New York and New Orleans.

    From 2004 to 2014, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, about 2.5 million salamanders were imported into the United States for the pet trade, many from Asia, where the fungus seems to have originated.

    Scientists believe it was the importation of salamanders to Europe that led to the appearance of the fungus in the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

    Salamanders may serve as a kind of early warning system for environmental problems, and they are deeply embedded in forest ecosystems, so their reduction or disappearance could have unpredictable consequences. But scientists have always been fascinated by a kind of flexibility in their life histories that is not seen in most vertebrates.

    The newt is a prime example. Sean Sterrett, a wildlife ecologist with Penn State and the U.S.G.S, who works with Dr. Grant, said the newt emerges from an egg laid in the water as a tadpole-like larva, metamorphosing into a tiny salamander shape with gills.

    Then the fun begins. It lives a year or two like that and then develops into a terrestrial form. Unless it doesnt.

    Sometimes it goes straight to an adult aquatic form. And though an adult usually has lungs, it may sometimes keep its gills.

    The juvenile terrestrial form the red eft is familiar to anyone who walks in Northeastern woodlands, particularly after rain, when they are most active. Sometimes the efts are more orange than red, but either way, you cant miss them.

    The efts usually spend three to six years on land, eating insects, worms and any living thing thats small enough. Unless they dont. They may spend only one year on land.

    Eventually, the efts return to the water, where they turn dark and greenish with red spots, and breed and live out their lives. Unless they dont.

    If the pond dries up or food runs out, or a newt suffers from too many leeches, it can move back to land. And if an adult stays there long enough, its skin changes to rough and dry. It doesnt need to stick to its decision, though, because it can move back to the water at any time.

    Wherever they are, salamanders eat whatever they can. Scientists refer to them as gape-limited predators. In other words, if it fits in your mouth, that means its food.

    The salamanders seem to have a liberal interpretation of what fits means. Dr. Sterrett said, Ive found a salamander that consumed an earthworm twice its body size.

    Many salamanders have flexible courses of development. Some, like mud puppies, keep their gills and never leave the water. And salamanders have other oddities some of the giant ones in China can grow to nearly six feet long and smell like stale urine. Others can poke the ends of their ribs out of their skin as a defense. And some engage in a kind of cannibalism that makes the worst playground bully seem like the Dalai Lama.

    These are the larvae of the tiger salamander. In any given clutch of eggs a few grow particularly big heads. The big heads are adapted to eating other larvae, said Dr. Sterrett. The cannibals thrive on the nutritious sibling diet, and dont look any different as adults.

    Of course, salamanders themselves suffer predation, even with their toxic skin. Raccoons skin them, Dr. Grant said. You sometimes come to a pond and you find a pile of salamander skins. But not the heads. The raccoons apparently like the brains.

    Dr. Grant and Ms. Brand caught only five newts at the suburban slough, so they planned to go back for more sampling.

    The survey of newt populations is about half-done, Dr. Grant said, and so far no Bsal has been detected. If it does appear, he hopes by then they will know more about which areas have thriving populations and how to protect them.

  • 05/28/2016:  Kentucky afield outdoors: declining amphibian population focus of new statewide study, KYForward
    (Link to the original article)


    A new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey and published this week offers compelling evidence that amphibian populations across the country are declining at a rate of almost 4 percent per year.

    Urbanization, pesticide use, changing weather patterns and disease all represent threats to amphibians, but how each threat impacts these species varies from region to region, according to the study.

    Implementing conservation plans at a local level will be key in stopping amphibian population losses since global efforts to reduce or lessen threats have been elusive, Evan Grant, a U.S.G.S. research wildlife biologist who led the study, said in a news release.

    The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has tracked amphibian populations for years and this spring initiated its own statewide study to monitor these species for diseases. Plans call for visiting 50 sites across seven ecological regions over the next two years.

    Weve done a lot of surveys, and through those we know we have robust populations of amphibians, said Iga Stasiak, wildlife veterinarian with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. We generally dont have a lot of information about amphibian health in Kentucky. What were focused on with this study is identifying disease, which is the first step in preventing its spread.

    Among the threats facing amphibian populations worldwide is the lethal chytrid fungus. A close relative of it now is taking aim on salamander populations in Europe. This new fungus known generally as salamander chytrid fungus could have serious effects if it turns up in the U.S. Chytrid fungus causes an infectious, and often fatal, skin disease in amphibians.

    It would be potentially devastating if we had an introduced pathogen such as the salamander chytrid fungus, Stasiak said. Some experimental studies have shown that a number of salamander species found in Kentucky and North America are susceptible, including the Eastern newt.

    Kentucky is home to 35 types of salamanders. The Eastern newt is most common in the forested areas of eastern and southern Kentucky but can be found across the state, said John MacGregor, state herpetologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

    Biologists conducting the study are collecting newts and tadpoles at each monitoring site.

    We set minnow traps in a wetland and leave them overnight, said Maggie Smith, wildlife health technician with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. Newts cruise around looking for prey, usually beetles or some type of invertebrate, and theyll just kind of crawl into that trap. We also do dip netting. Youre just looking for a deepish pond thats fairly permanent, and scouting for muddy areas with lots of vegetation because thats what they like.

    Once collected, each specimen is swabbed and then immediately returned to the water. The samples are sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for testing. Newt samples will be tested for chytrid fungus and salamander chytrid fungus, and tadpole samples will be tested for chytrid fungus and ranaviruses.

    The reason were sampling tadpoles is because that life stage and the ranid family of frogs appear to be most susceptible to those agents, Stasiak said. Weve had die-offs reported in Kentucky but weve never documented a disease-related die-off in Kentucky.

    The public can help prevent the transmission of diseases to amphibian populations by following some simple guidelines, starting with not releasing captive exotic or native species of amphibians into the wild.

    You could be spreading a disease or pathogen unknowingly by releasing them, Stasiak said. When we go into the field, we have a decontamination protocol and we disinfect our equipment and our boots with a diluted bleach solution before going from one pond to another.

    We certainly encourage people to appreciate wildlife and spend time outdoors, but its best to not move them from one place to another and to also be mindful of your boots and your equipment.

    Kentucky Fish and Wildlife offers additional information about how to prevent the spread of chytrid fungi on its website at fw.ky.gov.

    Stasiak hopes to continue the monitoring long term to track any changes in amphibian populations across Kentucky.

    Prevention is an important facet of wildlife health and often overlooked, she said. Often were very action oriented but prevention is equally important. Early detection is part of that. If we can detect a disease early on in the population were more likely to be able to potentially implement management actions to prevent its spread.

  • 05/18/2016:  Some fear that chronic wasting disease is spinning out of control in Wisconsin, The Cap Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Matt Limmex has been hunting deer on his familys land near Spring Green his entire life. But in recent years the satisfaction of bagging a buck has been tainted by concerns about chronic wasting disease.

    An older buck, youre almost certain itll be positive, said the 52-year-old Iowa County dairy farmer. Or youll be surprised when it isnt.

    For Limmex the annual bounty of the deer hunt has become an exercise in carcass disposal. In recent years hes been spotting the droolers and the shakers with increasing frequency. At the request of the DNR, he has shot down deer that were too sick to run away, and more often than not, they test positive for the disease, which destroys the nervous systems of cervids elk, deer and moose reducing them to bony shadows of their former selves.

    He hasnt kept track of the numbers, but he estimates that he and his family have killed more than three dozen CWD-positive deer, at least a dozen of them in the last two years. And that, he said, has taken its toll on the once-sublime experience of shooting a deer for the family table.

    Its not much fun to be shooting sick deer, he said.

    Limmex lives smack in the middle of a 144-square-mile cauldron of deer and disease centered in Iowa Countys Wyoming Valley and stretching into western Dane County, one of the most CWD-infected areas in the nation. According the most recent monitoring data, if he shoots a doe, theres roughly a one-in-four chance that its going to have CWD. If he shoots a buck, its essentially a flip of the coin.

    In the Wyoming Valley, the prevalence of the disease among adult male deer those 2 or older has seen an annual growth rate of 23 percent since it was discovered in 2002. By 2006, 6 percent of bucks tested had the disease. By 2010, it was 20 percent. In 2015, more than 40 percent. Prevalence among does, for reasons still under study, is lower: just over 25 percent, but growing at a faster clip. The zone is so polluted with the disease that its in the soil, likely taken up in plants that deer feed on.

    And CWDs geographic reach is expanding, stretching for the first time last fall to the Northwoods at a hunting preserve in Oneida County and popping up at an Eau Claire County deer farm in west central Wisconsin last summer. Its been found to exist in 18 Wisconsin counties, but because of close proximities to the sick deer, 41 of the states 72 counties are banned from baiting and feeding deer in an effort to reduce deer-to-deer infection.

    Its global reach is expanding as well. Its been detected in 24 states up from 18 in 2010 two Canadian provinces, South Korea, and most recently last year in Norway.

    But as the spread and prevalence rises, Wisconsins efforts in response to the disease diminish in a collective shrug as hunters, lawmakers and the wildlife management experts who advise them reject the notion that anything should, or can, be done about the exponential spread of CWD, an always-fatal disease that some fear could threaten the states hunting heritage and $1.3 billion in economic activity it brings to the Badger State each year.

    CWD, which first popped up in Wisconsin in 2002 near Mount Horeb, has embedded itself in the deep political divisions in the state, with hunting groups and others opposing efforts to fight the disease aligned with Republicans, and those wanting the state to step up herd-culling tactics and regulatory measures tending to lean Democratic.

    But the political lines sometimes cross.

    Limmex patrols his 220 acres in a well-used red pickup truck bearing stickers supporting Gov. Scott Walker and state Sen. Howard Marklein, both Republicans. His criticism of the lack of state action is measured, but unambiguous.

    I cant believe that hunters in other parts of the state dont want this area to do more to control the spread of CWD, he said. If this was elsewhere I sure would want that area to control the spread of it.

    Recently two Democratic lawmakers, alarmed at monitoring data from the 2015 hunt that showed the statewide prevalence raising from 6 percent to 9.5 percent, called on Walker to do more.

    Rep. Nick Milroy, a South Range Democrat, issued the plea with Rep. Chris Danou of Trempealeau.

    Obviously, deer hunting is a huge tradition in this state, but it also creates over $1 billion in economic impact every year, Milroy said. I think if this spreads to every corner of the state its going to have a real impact not only on our tradition but also on the economy.

    The lawmakers want the Walker administration to look at baiting and feeding bans to curtail the spread of CWD, double fencing at deer farms and hunting preserves, targeted culls in newly infected areas, restoring DNR science positions axed by Republicans in the Legislature last year to study the disease. They also want Walker to take a close look at CWD-management efforts in Illinois, where the prevalence rate has been held in check.

    The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation has called for stringent regulations for captive deer and elk facilities, a substantial increase in monitoring for the disease and more readily available information on the spread of the disease and incidents of escape from cervid farms. The group also wants the DNR to launch an independent scientific review of the states CWD management program.

    Meanwhile, Whitetails of Wisconsin, a deer farm and hunting preserve trade group, earlier this year issued a memo stating that CWD is not a highly contagious disease, that attempts to regulate cervid farms is a ploy used by anti-deer farming forces, and that no one can stop the spread of CWD.

    But Limmex said in the disease zone, people are starting to warm up to the notion of deer management.

    A member of the Iowa County Deer Advisory Council, Limmex has been pushing for an antlerless holiday hunt

    to lessen the deer density that experts believe contributes to the deer-to-deer transmission of the disease.

    He said many supported the hunt so if they shot a CWD-positive deer earlier in the season theyd have a chance to get another deer so they could eat it.

    Several people, he said, even called for bringing back earn-a-buck, a program requiring hunters to kill an antlerless deer before bagging a buck that was so detested by Republican lawmakers, and the hunters who have their ear, that it was banned in 2011 by the Legislature.

    But while Limmex puts support for the holiday hunt at better than 50-50, his fellow council members shot the idea down.

    Last Friday, Walker unveiled initiatives that included more frequent inspections of fences at deer farms and hunting preserves, a study of how CWD is affecting the state's deer herd and a faster testing procedure to determine whether harvested deer have the disease.

    But notably absent are sharpshooters and other herd-thinning efforts that the DNR initially used to combat the disease, until a backlash prompted a cessation of those measures in 2010.

    I was hoping they were going to take it more seriously, said Milroy. But what Ive seen from what theyve put out, to me its just fluff, and its not really getting at the heart of the problem.

    In setting state CWD policy, Walker in 2012 adopted the passive management approach advocated by Texas wildlife biologist James Kroll. The Walker administration recruited Kroll as the state's white-tailed deer trustee in 2011 with a $125,000 contract.

    Kroll, who still keeps track of CWD in Wisconsin, doesnt believe the problem is getting worse. Rather, he said, surveillance efforts are getting better.

    The disease is not spreading, he said in a recent interview. Were just sampling and were looking for it and were finding it.

    Other scientists, including the U.S. Geological Surveys CWD expert, have a different take.

    There are all these things that tie in together, said Bryan Richards, who heads up CWD efforts with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. Prevalence is growing, geographic distribution is growing. The amount of sampling available is dwindling. Human exposure and domestic livestock exposure to CWD-positive deer is increasing. Theres nothing good about this situation.

    CWD is a 100-percent fatal disease caused by abnormal proteins called prions that destroy the nervous systems of cervids, killing them off, on average, within 18 months. Prions tend to collect in the brain, where they bore small holes, and in the spinal cord, lymph nodes and spleen. But smaller amounts also infiltrate muscle, the part of the animal that typically lands on your plate.

    First discovered on a Colorado research farm in 1967, CWD was recognized as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) in 1978. It was not a wide concern until another TSE, a variant of mad cow disease, began killing people in Great Britain in the mid-1990s, sparking worldwide disruptions in the beef market.

    While health agencies and researchers generally say the chances of humans contracting chronic wasting disease are remote, they are not zero. Following the lead of the World Health Organization, most health agencies, including the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, advise against eating any part of an infected animal. And when it comes to prions, a well-done steak doesnt solve the problem. They can survive cooking temperatures.

    But over the years, concerns among some about the safety of meat have fallen by the wayside.

    Complacency has kicked in, said one property owner in Iowa County, whose land sits squarely in the hot zone.

    The landowner, who didnt want to be identified, said hes vigilant about testing the animals he shoots, two of which turned up positive in 2014. But members of his family dont take the same precautions.

    I am concerned, he said. But a lot of people in the state, they go hunting and just say, whatever.

    Jeb Barzen has 49 acres near Spring Green, on the northern edge of the CWD zone. The land is rife with deer. In a typical year his family harvests three of them.

    Last year a buck tested CWD-positive.

    It sucks, he said. But we hunt because its our primary source of protein.

    Barzen, a field ecologist, is careful about what he eats. When the deer turned up positive on his land, he decided to alert his neighbors.

    Almost every single neighbor that I contacted said, Oh yeah, weve had a deer that tested positive, he said. Some of the neighbors disposed of the carcasses. Other neighbors said, After the first time we got a carcass testing positive we just didnt bother to test anymore, and we eat the carcass anyway.

    Limmex said about half of the hunters he knows wont eat CWD-infected deer. I like to joke that your willingness to eat CWD-positive meat is directly correlated to your hatred of the DNR.

    Richards conceded that the odds of a human contracting the disease are low. But with every infected carcass consumed, the odds get better.

    In a biological system, if the odds of some event are small and you want to do something to bolster those odds from a population sense, keep repeating the experiment, he said. Thats what were doing. Were repeating the experiments out there. A significant number of humans are consuming CWD-positive venison every year. The chances of any one of them developing disease is extremely remote. But we keep repeating the experiment.

    Kroll considers the chance of humans contracting the disease to be too much of a long shot to be of significance.

    Theres some people there that I interact with pretty regularly that I honestly believe if a human being ever caught CWD theyd throw a cocktail party, he said. Theyre that eager to prove they knew what they were talking about, that human beings were going to catch CWD someday. Thats a shame.

    In the mainstream scientific realm, Kroll is a renegade. The founder of the Texas deer consulting agency Dr. Deer, Kroll bills himself as the father of modern whitetail management and an award winning scientist, author and TV personality. His firm, which includes two other deer management consultants, specializes in helping commercial white-tailed breeders and trophy hunt operations develop and market their businesses.

    Kroll had never before set policy for a state natural resources department until he was tabbed by the Walker administration.

    Theyre the only agency that would tolerate someone like me coming in and doing it, he said. And thats because the governor said to do it.

    He brought to the job a Texas-style populist approach that fit remarkably well with the prevailing anti-DNR sentiment. Hes under no illusion that his assertion that CWD is not at the top of the list of threats to the deer population has been embraced by his scientific brethren.

    You interview a bunch of people that say Im a complete lunatic and all that sort of stuff, he said. But I havent been wrong yet.

    Kroll and Richards are in agreement on one point: DNR figures that show a statewide spike in CWD prevalence from 6 percent to 9.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, which drew wide media coverage, are statistically flawed. With most of the samples taken in the CWD zone, both scientists agree that those numbers are suspect.

    Thats too simplistic of an analysis, said Richards, whose concern is focused on the escalating prevalence of the disease in localized pockets where it has gained a foothold, and on the geographic spread.

    Pointing out that samples were disproportionately collected in the CWD hot zone, Kroll called it a biased sample.

    I just got my hands on all the sampling data for the state that created such a stir in the press by some folks, he said. Seventy-five percent of the state samples have been taken in the heart of the area. And they focus primarily on the older age-class individuals, the most susceptible.

    But when it comes to what to do about the disease, the two scientists are worlds apart. And they have vastly different interpretations of Krolls passive management model.

    Passive, the interpretation would be merely monitoring the disease, Richards said. And if youre merely monitoring the disease theres really no way that can have any impact on the course of disease itself. It simply cant, almost by definition. And even the level of monitoring were doing has greatly dwindled.

    Kroll maintained that his passive management concept has been greatly misunderstood.

    Im very irritated about the interpretation of what passive management is, he said. Passive management is not doing nothing. Passive management is monitoring what is going on in the traditional zone, trying to contain it there and spend our hard-to-find dollars and effort on catching it breaking out and then get on it aggressively to control it where we find it outside of the zone.

    He also said he favors an emphasis on monitoring and research.

    He added, (Scientists) need to be studying the right things, not just padding our resumes with publications.

    But monitoring and research efforts are on the decline.

    Monitoring is considered by nearly all involved to be key in tracking the spread of the disease, but the level of monitoring is at a historic low. More than 40,000 deer were tested in 2002, the year CWD was discovered in the state. In 2014 the state tested just 5,465 deer. During the 2015 hunt, only 3,141.

    The 2015 drop is due in part to a new state policy that allows hunters to use computers and smartphones to register their deer, replacing the deer registration stations where hunters gathered for decades to admire each others trophies and shoot the breeze. In recent years, they could also get their deer tested on-site.

    The so-called Telecheck system puts the onus on hunters to get to a testing station.

    Thats very different than when a person had to bring their deer in and someone at the check station said, Hey, wed like to sample your deer, can we do it? Richards said.

    Barzen, the Spring Green hunter, suspects the complacency that has already set in regarding the safety of venison from CWD-infected deer will only deepen with the new system.

    I dont have expertise in disease, or in mammal management or deer management, he said. But I certainly know that its a pain in the ass to get the animals tested now. And the DNR has backed off so much on testing that I have to travel a significant distance just to get the test. I have to work pretty hard just to be safe.

    And funding for research has all but dried up.

    I think theres been a general drop-off of interest by all parties, said Michael Samuel, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of wildlife ecology who has been studying the disease for years. This kind of happens I guess with a lot of studies, especially with disease. We call it the crisis du jour.

    Like several researchers across the country, Samuel started researching CWD shortly after its discovery in Wisconsin. But the federal dollars that were the primary source of his funding have dried up and hes moved on.

    In terms of the ecology of the disease and its impact on the deer and how fast its spreading and how fast its growing, its prevalence, all those kinds of things, and what we might do about it, were not doing anything, he said.

    Some wildlife biologists believe when prevalence reaches 25 percent in does which is about the rate in the hot zone CWD will reduce breeding years to the point that population levels will decline.

    In Wyoming, for example, where management of the disease has been virtually nonexistent, one recent research project has forecast declines of the mule deer herd of up to 19 percent a year.

    Krolls not buying it. The mule deer population is declining, but he said other factors like changing habitats and land use practices are to blame.

    A whole bunch of other reasons were involved, he said.

    And he said white-tailed deer is on the decline as well, but not from CWD. The chief culprits are destruction of habitat and a gnat-borne viral disease.

    One of your scientists there came up with a model somewhere between 2002 and 2005 that predicted the extinction of white-tail deer in the zone area in 20 years, Kroll said. Well were getting pretty close to that and now folks are expanding it out, well, maybe 25 years, maybe 50 years, maybe 100 years. Im waiting to see it.

    And he sees early efforts by the DNR to control the disease, especially earn-a-buck, not only as ineffective, but harmful.

    The program, he said, spared too many older bucks in the CWD zone, who are the most likely deer population to carry the disease, while killing off a higher percentage of does, which are less likely to be CWD-infected.

    Earn-a-buck created a much older population of bucks and actually increased the disease rate instead of helping it, he said.

    Theres no telling how long chronic wasting disease has been around, Kroll said, but its been around for a long time. And the more you test for it, the more youll find it.

    Im not saying its not a disease of importance, he said. Im just saying that its been grossly overblown.

    Officials in other states look at Wisconsin with a mix of paranoia and frustration.

    Our situation poses a risk to our neighbors, said Richards.

    The discovery of CWD in Oneida County last fall was the first instance of the disease in the Northwoods, and it raised fears among Michigan officials that the Upper Peninsula, about 25 miles away, is at risk.

    Michigan detected its first case of CWD in free-range deer in 2015 downstate near Lansing and has mounted a vigorous response. Now the state sees itself as fighting on multiple fronts. Officials have launched a campaign dubbed Keep the U.P. CWD Free! and banned whole deer carcasses from Wisconsin.

    In Iowa, monitoring efforts are focused near the in eastern border, where infected deer were found directly across the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien.

    In Minnesota, which has not detected the disease in recent years, monitoring efforts along the river also are extensive.

    In Illinois, CWD-infected deer are concentrated in the north, with pockets near the Wisconsin border. But officials there have had a much different response than in the Badger State. And theyve kept the prevalence at just over 1 percent.

    Paul Shelton, forest wildlife manager for the Illinois DNR, said that his state has kept the pressure on with mandatory testing, aerial surveys, special hunting seasons and sharpshooters taking out diseased deer.

    We figure if were removing sick deer at a rate faster than theyre getting infected, then were having a positive effect, particularly at the local level, he said.

    But he called eradication of the disease more of a fond thought than a practical reality.

    Part of the reason, he said, is the porous border with the states northern neighbor.

    From the very beginning theres been that shadow of how Wisconsin goes is going to affect Illinois and vice versa, he said. But the reality is, short of a large fence all the way across the top of the line, thats something that were going to have to live with.

    Wisconsins 350 deer farms and 68 hunting preserves are of particular concern, given their track record as a breeding ground for disease. Democratic lawmakers and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation have called for measures such as double fencing to prevent nose-to-nose contact with wild deer and more stringent testing.

    We totally agree that the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are doing a very poor job of regulating deer farms and the management of chronic wasting disease in this state, said George Meyer, the executive director of the Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary.

    So far, 14 game farms have had CWD-positive deer, necessitating the extermination of 11 entire herds, according to DNR records.

    Early this year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that 33 deer at Fairchild Whitetails in Eau Claire County tested positive for CWD, resulting in the slaughter of all 228 deer at the 10-acre spread. More than a dozen escaped the farm last year, sparking fears of a possible spread. The DNR said all the escaped deer were captured or killed.

    The state placed a deer baiting and feeding ban in Eau Claire, Clark and Jackson counties as a result. And state officials also paid the farm owner, Rick Vojtik, who also serves as president of Whitetails of Wisconsin, $1,310 for each animal, for a total of $298,000.

    Meyer testified earlier this year in front of the DNR board to complain about the DNR's handling of the CWD problem, but he has hopes that the agency will step up efforts after a mandatory review of Wisconsins Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan after the 2015 hunting season.

    But the plans current provisions have been on hold since the state adopted Kroll's passive management approach.

    The CWD plan calls for use of the earn-a-buck program, easy access to testing, a statewide ban on feeding and baiting, continued surveillance in CWD-free areas to track its spread, reduction of the number of escaped deer from farms and hunting preserves, stepped-up educational efforts, a registry of people known to have eaten CWD-positive venison, research support and sharpshooters deployed along the periphery of the CWD zone to control the spread.

    None of those measures are currently in place.

    Milroy, the Democratic lawmaker, doesn't expect review of the plan to result in the aggressive approach he and Danou have called for.

    Its all very frustrating and it shows the lack of competence of the administration to take these concerns seriously, he said.

    Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in coming up with the initiatives unveiled last week, Walker sought constructive input from experts and also consulted with professionals at the DNR on Milroys and Danou's recommendations.

    As a hunter, the Governor fully appreciates the need to do all we can do to combat CWD effectively, Evenson said in an email.

    He didnt answer a specific question about whether Walker sought further advice from Kroll, who said the states current approach to handling CWD is appropriate.

    The DNR has implemented what we recommended fairly well, Kroll said. The biggest mistake they made is they havent told anybody that they have. Theyre doing a good job.

    And as far as human health, Kroll said thats something thats up to the hunter.

    Ive eaten deer that probably were infected, Kroll said. Lets use some common sense here. If a hunter sees a deer that comes by thats a walking skeleton, skinny, are they going to shoot it and eat it? I think not.

    For Limmex, common sense means doing something to prevent those walking skeletons from haunting his land in the first place.

    It would be nice if theyd try to do something, he said.

  • 05/13/2016:  Plan to drop vaccine on prairie dog towns from drones delayed, Great Falls Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is extending the public comment period on a plan to drop plague vaccine from drones onto prairie dog colonies at Montanas Charles M. Russell and UL Bend national wildlife refuges.

    The agency said significant interest from local communities during the initial 30-day public comment period in April prompted the extension.

    Vacine doses weighing a gram that taste like peanut butter would be dropped from drones onto prairie dog colonies to curb outbreaks of sylvatic plague. The goal is to save black-footed ferrets, an endangered species whose main food is prairie dogs.

    The black-footed ferret, which is endangered, is one of the rarest mammals in North America with 300 surviving in the West.

    Of the 60 or so comments that have been received, the vast majority are highly supportive of the program, said Randy Matchett, a Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist based at CMR.

    Theres been a few that are obviously not supportive of maintaining prairie dogs and endangered species or federal budgets or those kind of issues, Matchett said.

    At least three of the people who commented asked for more time to comment, he said.

    Theres really no hurry on our end and this whole process is intended to get all the public input we can, Matchett said.

    The vaccine already has been placed at colonies in seven states as part of trial efforts beginning in 2012 in Colorado, Matchett said.

    To bolster ferret populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also raises them at a captive-rearing facility and locates them at suitable habitat.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and National Wildlife Health Center to evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccinations at colonies.

    Results from that work indicate that the vaccine helps mitigate the effects of plague. Now that the initial safety and research phases have proven successful, the agency is proposing to use the vaccine on a larger scale.

    Using drones, the agency is proposing to drop the vaccine-laden, peanut-butter flavored baits uniformly across prairie dog colonies on at Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges at a rate of 50 doses per acre in August.

    The agency is proposing to drop the baits from drones because it would be less intrusive and simpler than trying to distribute them over thousands of acres by walking or with an all-terrain vehicle, Matchett said.

    Follow Karl Puckett on Twitter @GFTrib_KPuckett.

    Whats next

    The new deadline for public input is June 13. Copies of the environmental assessments are available on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge website at: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/charles_m_russell/ or the refuge main office in Lewistown at 406-538-8706. Emails comments to randy_matchett@fws.gov or sent by mail to: Attn: Randy Matchett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 333 Airport Road, Lewistown, Montana 59457.

  • 05/06/2016:  A deadly fungus threatens salamanders, Great Lakes Echo
    (Link to the original article)


    Salamanders beware a new threat to your health could be coming to the United States.

    Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans Bsal for short is a fungus that eats away the skin of certain salamanders. Its found in parts of Asia and Europe, and researchers say it could strike the United States next.

    In fact, they say that such an attack is highly probable, if not inevitable.

    Lab tests show that the eastern newt is highly susceptible to the fungus, said Katherine Richgels, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

    It causes the salamanders to get lesions and sores on their skin, said Richgels, who recently did a study of the disease. Every eastern newt that researchers exposed to it died.

    And it acts fast. Salamanders that contract the fungus often die within six or seven days, Richgels said.

    Eastern newts in the region have an increased risk because Chicago is a port where diseased salamanders could be brought in, said Evan Grant, another author of the study.

    Lower Michigan also has high numbers of pet stores, raising the likelihood of introduction.

    The pathogen was discovered in 2013, when fire-bellied salamanders in the Netherlands started disappearing at an alarming rate, Richgels said. The fungus caused the species to collapse.

    A similar collapse of salamanders in the U.S. could have far-reaching consequences, especially affecting their predators and prey, said Grant, a researcher at the University of Marylands Bill Fagan Lab.

    And Eastern newts are important. They regulate the number of frog tadpoles and affect the amount and type of nutrients available in the ponds. A decline of newts could create an ecological imbalance, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Small fish that eat salamanders could go hungry, Richgels said. Without salamanders those fisheries would crash and that could have big implications for fish populations.

    A decline in salamanders could disrupt the connection between water and land habitats, she said. Salamanders connect those systems because they are aquatic part of the year, but theyre also terrestrial part of the year, and they help move energy and other nutrients back and forth.

    There are no successful treatments for wild salamanders with the fungus. Only salamanders kept as pets that got sick could potentially be treated, Richgels said.

    Preventing is going to be much better than trying to mitigate once it gets here, she said.

    As a precaution, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned 201 salamander species from importation in January, said Michael Adams, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Surveys Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center.

    That will also prevent moving them around within the United States and hopefully slow the spread of Bsal, he said.

    The ban may stop hobbyists from collecting certain species, said Jyzun Boget, the assistant manager of the reptile department at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Michigan.

    The salamanders are now harder to find and their prices have skyrocketed, he said. But that is an incentive for people who already own them to start captive breeding. If theyre successful, prices will come down and the salamanders will be easier to get.

    The end of this particular story has a happy ending, Boget said. Instead of being captured from the wild, the salamanders will be captive bred, meaning there is less impact on the environment and they will live healthier lives.

    But banning those species from import is only one step that needs to be taken, Grant said.

    The U.S. Geological Survey is working on prevention methods and collecting samples to determine if Bsal has already reached the U.S.

    There are lots of other groups that are doing things like susceptibility trials, where theyre collecting salamanders and amphibians and exposing them to the pathogen to see if they get sick, Richgels said.

    Seven salamander species have been tested so far, including the eastern newt. But there are 191 species in the U.S.More of those may be vulnerable.

    Its a fairly unprecedented level of organization and effort going on for something that we dont know to be here, Adams said. His agency and others are planning what to do in the event of an introduction.

    The public can help prevent its spread, Richgels said.

    People who keep amphibians as pets shouldnt release them into the wild, Richgels said.

    Owners should use a 10 percent bleach solution to decontaminate any dead salamanders or water or other materials they have touched before discarding them, she said.

    Those who enjoy exploring nature can help by looking out for dead salamanders, she said. Immediately report a large number of dead salamanders to an environmental agency for further investigation.

  • 05/05/2016:  First evidence of fungus deadly to bats found in R.I., Providence Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    PROVIDENCE, R.I. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has decimated bat populations throughout the eastern United States and Canada, has been discovered for the first time in Rhode Island.

    The Department of Environmental Management announced on Thursday that a tri-colored bat hibernating in Newport County this past winter tested positive for the disease and that soil samples from two other locations in the county confirmed the presence of the fungus.

    Rhode Island becomes the 29th state a list that includes all the other New England states to confirm the presence of white-nose syndrome, which has killed approximately six million bats over the past decade.

    The syndrome was first documented in a cave in New York state in 2006 and was named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzles, wings and other parts of hibernating bats. The bats are awakened from their winter sleep by the damage the fungus causes and act in ways that arent normal. They fly during the day when they should be at rest and eventually use up their fat stores and starve to death.

    Seven species of bats that live mainly in the eastern part of the country are affected. In some places, 90 to 100 percent of bats have died from the syndrome, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    The fungus was found in swab samples collected in Rhode Island as part of a research study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, in Wisconsin. Although the bats that were tested showed no visible signs of the disease when samples were collected in February and again in March, further testing confirmed that one bat was infected and two others were suspected of having the syndrome. Soil samples taken from two other locations found the presence of the fungus but no other infected bats.

    White-nose syndrome is not a threat to humans or other animals.

  • 05/02/2016:  White-nose Syndrome in Western Bats?, Idaho Conservation League
    (Link to the original article)


    Bats are some of the most diverse, ecologically important and underrated animals in the world. In my short conservation career, I have been fortunate enough to have worked on several bat projects. I mapped their habitats in Vermont during my senior year at Middlebury, mist-netted them in Chiricahua National Monument by the ArizonaMexico border, surveyed lava tubes in southern Idaho to look for maternity colonies, explored mines in Baja to do roost counts, and surveyed 62 caves in Sequoia National Park to look for hibernating bats.

    Unfortunately, bats face many threatsespecially North American bats. Since 2006, white-nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly disease caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has decimated an estimated 6 million bats in the eastern United States. A couple weeks ago, this deadly disease made a huge geographical jump to the West.

    On Mar 31, scientists confirmed the first case of white-nose syndrome west of the Rockies. It was discovered in a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found by hikers along an undisclosed trail near North Bend, Wash., on Mar 11. The bat was very weak and unable to fly, so they took the bat to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) where it died two days later. Katie Haman, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, recognized the signs of WNS. After the bat died, the agency sent it to the U.S. Geological Surveys (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where scientists confirmed the disease.

    This is really scary news. Previously, the westernmost detection of the fungus was in Nebraska, almost 1,300 miles away. Katie Gillies, Director of Imperiled Species for Bat Conservation International, said in the USGS press release, Such a massive jump in geographical location leads us to believe that we humans are most likely responsible for its most recent spread. The fungus is transmitted primarily from bat to bat but can also spread when the spores of the fungus that causes WNS remain on the clothes and gear of recreational cavers and bat researchers. WNS does not affect humans or any other animals, but it is extremely important to decontaminate before and after visiting caves.

    Gillies told Darryl Fears at The Washington Post that now "were going to see it radiate from that new point. Its like having breast cancer and finding that its metastasized. She added, We have as many as 16 western bat species that are now at risk. We have always feared a human-assisted jump to a western state. Unfortunately, our fears have been realized, and western North Americaa bastion of bat biodiversitymay now expect impacts like we have seen in the East.

    WNS is now recognized as one of the most devastating wildlife epidemics in recorded history, Winifred Frick, Sebastien Puechmaille and Craig Willis, university researchers who work internationally, wrote in a 2016 paper.

    Bats are amazing animals that are essential to the environment, eating tons of insects nightly, thereby benefiting crops, forests and humans. The loss of bats in North America could lead to agricultural losses estimated at more than $3.7 billion a year. In Idaho, bats contribute an estimated value of over $313 million in pest control every year to the agricultural industry alone.

    Studying bats has also led to advancements in sonar, vaccine development, and blood coagulation. Spreading awareness about WNS and making sure to decontaminate before exploring caves are some of the ways you can help bats. If you're interested in other ways to help our bat friends, visit the Bat Conservation International website.

    In addition, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game details what is being done in Idaho.

    - See more at: http://www.idahoconservation.org/blog/white-nose-syndrome-in-bats#sthash.7TbvhKf6.dpuf

  • 04/20/2016:  Floating bird carcasses make waves in botulism research, Great Lake Echo
    (Link to the original article)


    Using satellites to follow dead birds drifting on Lake Michigan may hold the key to locating the source of the elusive botulinum toxin, which causes paralysis and death in birds.

    To track down where waterbirds might be exposed to the toxin, a recent study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research developed a model of how loon carcasses drift using an approach similar to that of search-and-rescue operations, said Jennifer Chipault, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

    The idea stems from previous evidence that loons the most plentiful victims of avian botulism feed as far down as 250 feet deep. That suggests the birds may be contracting the toxin further offshore than originally thought.

    The carcass drift model provides an opportunity to focus on where toxin production is likely occurring or where it is being transferred to the birds, lead author and USGS research wildlife biologist Kevin Kenow said.

    Information for the model was gathered from satellite transmitters and GPS devices that the researchers attached to loon carcasses that were collected by the state of Minnesota, he said.

    We put those carcasses out in Lake Michigan and allowed them to drift for several days, Kenow said. The location data was beamed up to the satellite, and then we also retrieved the carcasses and our equipment.

    Next, the model was used to backtrack the carcasses of non-radiomarked birds that had died from botulism and washed ashore. It used the wind, wave and current conditions to identify the paths they drifted, he said.

    The gene that produces the botulism toxin is fairly widespread, but not in high concentrations, said Stephen Riley, a USGS research fishery biologist.

    We had very few places where we called them hotspots, and those kind of places are where we think the birds would ultimately be getting the toxin from, he said.

    Outbreaks have become somewhat more common lately, Riley said. Theyre finding more dead birds than they used to for a while.

    One reason may be because of the increasing growth of cladophora, an algae native to the Great Lakes, the researchers said. The increase is due to invasive mussels, like quagga mussels, that attach to the sand and provide a hard surface for the algae to attach, Riley said. Mussels also clear the water, allowing light to penetrate more deeply. That lets the algae to grow deeper than it used to.

    And the mussels excrete soluble phosphorus that fertilizes the algae.

    Sometimes there will be like three or four feet of this algae waving around in the current, Riley said. At some point in the summer it gets weak because its grown so much, and storms can peel it off the rocks or the mussel beds, and it ends up settling somewhere and then starts to rot.

    The bacterium that produces the botulinum toxin requires conditions with absolutely no oxygen. The researchers think the settling and rotting of the algae forms these conditions. Storms may stir up the algae, releasing the toxin where it will be taken up by bugs scavenging in the algae.

    Fish eat the bugs and birds eat the fish.

    Thats what we think is happening, Riley said. But we dont know where is the problem.

    Once thats solved, actually addressing the issue depends on the source of the toxin production or its pathways up the food chain, Kenow said.

    Is there something specific that can be done to eliminate the conditions for toxin production in those areas? he said. Is there perhaps something going on at that site that could be interrupted somehow? Or, is it a really focal site where you might engage in trying to disturb and disperse birds away from that area so they arent exposed to the toxin?

    In the Sleeping Bear Dunes alone, 500 to 600 loons died from botulism in 2012. Around 300 of those deaths were concentrated in one week in October, Riley said. There are only 10,000 to 15,000 breeding pairs of loons in the Great Lakes states, so if this happens every year, it could become a significant cause of death.

    The 2012 die-off concerned the National Park Service which has been monitoring bird carcasses with the Geological Survey, said Brenda Lafrancois, a regional aquatic ecologist for the Park Service. The agencies coordinated about a dozen volunteers, each responsible for reporting or sending in bird carcasses found on a section of the beach at Sleeping Bear.

    Botulism is probably the single biggest killer of wild birds in the world, Riley said. Some studies say up to a million birds a year die from it.

    The toxin can kill people in doses measured in nanograms, which are millionths of a gram, he said. Typically it has to be ingested to kill.

    Its also possible for the toxin to enter the system via the eyes or a cut in the skin, said Chipault, who encourages people to report dead birds on beaches to their local natural resources agency.

    If loons are contracting the toxin in 150 feet of water, which is about 10 miles offshore, people are unlikely to encounter it swimming, Riley said.

    The bigger danger would be if people poke around at a dead bird on the beach and then accidentally touched their mouths, which is improbable, he said. Dogs can get sick or die if they pick up the birds.

    The fish you eat probably arent going to have it either, because its more likely to occur in the small forage fish that eat bugs rather than the game fish that are eating other fish, Riley said.

    And the affected fish die pretty quickly, he said. If you catch one, itll be obviously sick-looking, and youre probably not going to want to eat it.

    The botulinum toxin tends to affect the limbs, neck and eyelids first, Chipault said.

    Youll see birds that cant control their inner eyelids, or cant keep their heads up, or cant walk or cant fly.

  • 04/14/2016:  Drone deliveries could help endangered ferrets, Couthouse News Service
    (Link to the original article)


    WASHINGTON (CN) - Drone-delivered plague vaccine could save colonies of prairie dogs, the main prey of black-footed ferrets, the most endangered mammal in the United States, federal agencies say. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it has completed two Environmental Assessments proposing to administer oral plague vaccine to prairie dogs in the Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Refuges in northeastern Montana, and proposing to do so using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones.

    Black-footed ferrets, the only ferret species native to the U.S., historically numbering in the tens of thousands, were once believed to be extinct. In 1981, a wild population was discovered in Wyoming, but disease nearly wiped out the colony, the Service said. The few surviving ferrets were captured for a breeding program, and those captive-bred animals have been used to reestablish colonies in 27 sites within the historical range, from southern Canada to northern Mexico in parts of 11 Midwestern states. "Approximately 300 ferrets were known to exist in the wild at the end of 2015," the agency said.

    Captive-bred animals are vaccinated against plague before they are released, and the USFWS continues to capture and vaccinate young ferrets in the newly established populations. However, if there is nothing for them to eat, that effort is pointless.

    In the U.S., the ferrets depend on three species of prairie dogs for food, and they use the rodents' burrows for shelter. Considered a pest by farmers and ranchers, the numbers of prairie dogs have been severely reduced from historical levels, which led to the near-extinction of the ferrets. Many other species also depend on the prairie dogs, such as burrowing owls, mountain plovers, swift fox, eagles and badgers, according to the a U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet.

    Reestablishing ferrets depends on maintaining healthy populations of prairie dogs, which are highly susceptible to plague, an introduced disease, to which the animals have no natural immunity. An outbreak can wipe out 90 percent or more of a colony and can lead to local extinctions.

    Though it is the same disease that killed millions of people in Europe in the 1300s as bubonic plague (infected lymph nodes), septicemic plague (blood infection) and pneumonic plague (infected lungs), it is termed sylvatic plague in wildlife. While pneumonic plague can be easily spread people-to-people by coughing, sylvatic plague is most often spread through flea bites, the USGS said.

    Individually injecting prairie dog populations is not feasible, and fortunately, they do well with the newly developed oral vaccine, which is absorbed in the mouth as they eat the peanut-flavored baits, the USFWS said. "Defenders of Wildlife and many others have spent a lot of time and money over the last 30 years to save the black-footed ferret from extinction, but without a successful plague vaccine for both prairie dogs and ferrets it may all be for naught," Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife's Rocky Mountain region representative, said. "This work is absolutely critical to save our nation's investment in black-footed ferret recovery."

    Previously, the U.S. Forest Service attempted to control the threat to prairie dog colonies by dusting the areas around the colonies with pesticide, which is labor-intensive, costly and must be repeated yearly, the Forest Service said. Another concern is the fleas' suspected pesticide resistance to chemical control, the USFWS said.

    The Forest Service has been field-testing the new vaccine approach that was jointly developed by the USGS's National Wildlife Health Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "An oral vaccine can be delivered much more efficiently to large numbers of animals, because we are putting it in bait that we can broadcast widely from planes, trucks or other vehicles," wildlife biologist Tonie Rocke of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, said.

    The USFWS, in its Environmental Assessment, made clear that its preferred method of vaccine distribution is through the use of drones. During trials, the sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) was applied by hand by people walking pre-defined transects dropping baits every 9-10 meters. All terrain vehicles could speed that process, but would also create negative environmental impacts. Depending on terrain, a single person could treat 3-6 acres per hour, the agency said. "If the equipment can be developed to deposit three SPV doses simultaneously every second, as we envision is possible, some 200 acres per hour could be treated by a single operator. For SPV to be a viable plague mitigation tool at meaningful management scales for ferret recovery, delivery via UAS is potentially the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method of application," the agency noted.

    Comments on both Environmental Assessments are due May 13.

  • 04/13/2016:  Plague vaccine from the sky: government officials propose using drones to vaccinate prairie dogs, Outbreak News Today
    (Link to the original article)


    One of the countrys most endangered mammals stands to benefit from two proposed actions announced this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). The Service has conducted Environmental Assessments (EA) for these actions and is seeking public comment for both activities.

    As part of its ongoing efforts to conserve the rare black-footed ferret, the Service is proposing to administer an oral sylvatic plague vaccine for the species primary prey: prairie dogs. The vaccine would be applied at Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges in northeastern Montana.

    Prairie dogs are susceptible to sylvatic plague, which can kill virtually all the prairie dogs on entire colonies of the ground-dwelling animals. Black-footed ferrets rely almost exclusively on prairie dogs as a source of food and shelter, so efforts to maintain and grow prairie dog colonies would benefit establishing and growing ferret populations.

    For several years, the Service has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and National Wildlife Health Center to evaluate the effectiveness of these vaccinations. Results from that work indicate that the vaccine helps mitigate the effects of plague. Now that the initial safety and research phases have proven successful, the Service is proposing to apply the vaccine at larger management scales.

    The first EA available for public comment considers depositing single, vaccine-laden, peanut-butter flavored baits uniformly across prairie dog colonies on at Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges at a rate of 50 doses per acre.

    The second EA evaluates the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to apply the vaccine on the same refuges and dosages.

    The announcement opens a 30 day comment period for both EAs, which ends on May 13, 2016.

  • 04/08/2016:  DNA may hold clues to halt westward spread of bat mystery disease, Scientific American
    (Link to the original article)


    Last week U.S. state and federal wildlife agencies announced that white-nose syndromea deadly fungal disease that has killed more than six million hibernating bats in the eastern U.S.has made a 2,000-kilometer jump across the country from eastern Nebraska to Washington State. There it is known to have infected and killed at least one bat in the small town of North Bend, 48 east of Seattle.

    How the disease made such a vast leap remains a mystery. To try solving it, a group of scientists led by the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wis.one of the nations top wildlife disease laboratoriesis looking to DNA for clues. Genetic testing may allow us to create a map that helps us understand how the Washington State bat became infected with P. destructans, says David Blehert, a molecular biologist at the NWHC and leader of his labs white-nose syndrome research.

    Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the slow-growing fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. It thrives in cold, damp cave environments, making cold-adapted hibernating bats an easy target. As bats hang dormant from cave ceilings, P. destructans invades their skin tissues. It causes lesions and often the characteristic white nose, a visible accumulation of powderlike white fluff on a bats muzzle. Internally, P. destructans causes problems that disrupt hibernation and lead to dehydration, starvation and eventually death. Wildlife experts say it poses no known risks to humans.

    The fungus is not native to the U.S. Most likely it arrived via human trade or transportation from Asia or Europe, where it is believed to have originated, says Jeremy Coleman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national white-nose syndrome coordinator. Bats can transmit P. destructans among themselves and the spores can persist in caves for years, infecting many generations of the animals. But Coleman says humans are the prime mode of transmission suspected in the case of the North Bend bat. Blehert agrees: To date, white-nose has spread following a particular pattern across the East up to a line in the Midwest, and then, boom! Its suddenly 1,300 miles west in Washington State.

    Whereas this jump could have hypothetically occurred in bucket brigade fashion between several bats, Blehert says it is more likely a human visitor to an infected cave carried P. destructans to the Northwest on contaminated clothing or gear, possibly in a clod of dirt in the sole of their hiking boot.

    An international team of scientists recently discovered that white-nose syndrome is widespread in parts of Asia, where bats appear to be more resistant to its harmful effectsas they are in Europe. This could be due to genetic differences among species, but also might be related to variations in gut bacteria, immune responses or nuances in hibernation, says Joseph Hoyt, a graduate student in Earth and marine sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the Asian white-nose syndrome study. Environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity can also affect the syndromes virulence. Bats in warmer, more humid habitats tend to experience higher rates and more severe cases than those in cooler, drier places, says Hoyt, who is currently in China collecting P. destructans samples for genetic testing.

    Although running genetic analyses on a fungus might sound unusual, it is not a novel idea: Today, wildlife disease research goes beyond diagnosing illness. When disease outbreaks strike, unlocking pathogens genetic codes may provide insight into how they spreadand how to stop them from causing further infection. Just last year, scientists at the NWHC focused their attention on studying avian influenza DNA, which caused a devastating outbreak that killed hundreds of wild migratory birds and more than 48 million chickens and turkeys across the U.S. West and Midwest from December 2014 to June 2015. Although research is still underway, experts say both human actions and bird migration appear to have contributed to transmission.

    The recent development of next-generation or high-throughput sequencing technologies have allowed for faster, less expensive and often more reliable genomic testing of pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi. But even with the best genetic technologies, decoding and comparing the genomes of various samples of P. destructans could take a long time: Whereas viruses nuclei contain thousands to tens of thousands of nucleotides, fungi nuclei can contain millions.

    Experts hope to determine how white-nose syndrome traveled to Washingtonthe 28th state where it has been detectedsooner rather than later. We have a lot of concerns about the discovery of this single bat: One bat found, was found with advanced stage of the disease, Coleman says. Bats do not succumb to that level of disease unless the fungus has been present for several years.

    Because white-nose syndrome was first diagnosed in North American bats in 2006, federal and state wildlife agencies have poured more than $50 million into disease research. Some scientists have been working toward treatments, but theres no effective cure. Instead, wildlife management agencies rely on a containment strategy, closing caves and promoting a decontamination protocol for cave visitors in a bid to prevent humans from spreading the fungus.

    Scientists are not the only ones on the front lines of the U.S. white-nose syndrome outbreak: Spelunkers are also helping to quell the spread of the disease. Jennifer Foote, white-nose syndrome liaison with the National Speleological Society (NSS), a group of caving enthusiasts, says her organizations members have directly assisted wildlife management agencies in educating the public about the disease and conducting research. Additionally, the NSS has donated more than $115,000 in funding for 22 white-nose syndrome research grants to date.

    Although NSS supports bat conservation and research, some efforts to control white-nose syndrome have been a major headache for cavers, Foote says. Some members have quit caving temporarily or permanently. White-nose syndrome has made it more stressful than relaxing to go out and enjoy nature.

  • 04/02/2016:  Bat-killing disease reported in western U.S. for first time, Missoulian
    (Link to the original article)


    A hiker found a bat with deadly white-nose syndrome along a trail east of Seattle, marking the first time the fungus-borne disease has appeared in the western United States.

    Its very disheartening to see this long a jump, said Chris Servheen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which monitors the spread of white-nose syndrome. It was documented by North Bend, Washington, and the closest evidence of white-nose before this was eastern Nebraska and northern Minnesota.

    The little brown bat was found on March 11 in an area not known for caves or hibernaculum, where large colonies of bats gather to hibernate through the winter. The fungus typically creates a powdery coating on a hibernating bats nose and mouth, depriving it of the energy it needs to survive the winter. It spreads from nose to nose in the densely packed confines of bat colonies.

    White-nose syndrome was first detected in New York in 2006. It has subsequently killed millions of bats and wiped out entire regional populations in many parts of the eastern United States. To date, the fungus is confirmed in 27 states and five Canadian provinces.

    Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) appear to be the most susceptible species to the disease. A PLOS-One study published in 2015 raised concern that population models indicate that if mortality rates stay constant, this species could be extirpated from the northeastern United States within 16 years.

    Its shocking and disturbing to see this disease reach Washington and indeed the western United States, said Mollie Matteson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. It certainly opens a new chapter in the spread of a disease that has already killed millions of bats. This is a wake-up call for land managers in the West to do whats needed to keep white-nose syndrome from spinning out of control before its too late.

    A frequent and controversial response is to close caves to public access, on the assumption that people are spreading spores of the fungus from cave to cave. While there is evidence that the initial cases of white-nose syndrome may have derived from fungus spores brought from European ships to American ports, the cave-closure policy has been hotly debated.

    Some areas in the East have closed caves on public land, Servheen said. But in the West, we are working with the caving community as partners in this process. We see them as part of the solution, not the problem. They provide trip reports of bats when they see them and enforce clean-caving protocols.

    Montana has a world-renowned cave collection, ranging from Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park to what is the potentially deepest cave in North America in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. However, it has remarkably few large colonies of bats that hibernate together for the winter.

    White-nose syndrome does not affect humans, livestock or other wildlife. The bat the hikers found died two days after it was delivered to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society for examination. It has since been sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for fungal, molecular and DNA analysis.

    We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease, FWS Director Dan Ashe said in an email statement. Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus.

  • 03/31/2016:  Bat populations in peril following discovery of white-nose syndrome in Washington, KPLU 88.5
    (Link to the original article)


    White-nose syndrome has killed more than 6 million bats in 28 states and five Canadian provinces since it was first documented nearly a decade ago in New York. Now, Washington state has become the most recent addition to that list, after hikers found a bat with the disease on a trail in North Bend, about 30 miles east of Seattle.

    The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center verified the disease in a little brown bat found on March 11. It died two days later.

    Tests Confirmed 'Game-Changing' Find

    David Blehert, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says after they received the bats body, they ran a series of tests which revealed that the bat had skin lesions indicative of white-nose syndrome.

    Subsequently we have also cultured the fungus "Pseudogymnoascus destructans" from tissues of the bat. And remember, this is the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, Blehert said.

    The Washington find is the westernmost evidence of the rapid spread of the disease in the U.S. The evidence here represents a huge jump. Its nearly 1,300 miles west of places in Nebraska and Minnesota, which previously represented the westernmost edge of its range here.

    How White-Nose Syndrome Kills Bats

    White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that produces itching so severe in bats that it interrupts their hibernation. They then starve to death because they wake up before there are enough insects available for them to feed on. Their voracious appetites for bugs can keep other diseases in check such as West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitos. Bats are also great pollinators of crops, so officials are worried.

    Katie Haman, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the potential effects could be widespread and devastating.

    Bats are incredibly important and the prediction from what weve learned from eastern North America is that this can have really huge impacts.

    Haman adds that right now, theyre not sure how severe this outbreak could be, since they only have a data set of one. But genetic tests have indicated the infected bat is native to the west. Officials will be monitoring the area near North Bend to find out whether others are affected.

    Potentially Huge Impacts

    The disease doesn't affect people or other animals. But Washington state has 15 species of bats that are potentially vulnerable. And experts say the occurrence here could be even more widespread because in contrast to their east coast counterparts, western bats colonize more areas outside caves, such as abandoned buildings and cliff sides, where containment becomes more challenging.

    WDFW advises against handling animals that appear sick or are found dead. They're asking anyone who finds a dead bat or notice bats exhibiting unusual behavior such as flying outside during the day or during freezing weather, to report their observation to the agency.

  • 03/31/2016:  West's first case of devastating fungus found in bat near North Bend, Yakima Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    Scientists have detected the first known case of white-nose syndrome in a bat in Washington a bleak revelation that could spell doom for populations of the flying mammals in this state and beyond.

    The deadly fungus the first detection of the disease west of the Rockies was discovered in a little brown bat found by hikers along an undisclosed trail near North Bend on March 11, scientists say.

    As they were hiking along they came across a bat that was alive but very weak and unable to fly, said Katherine Haman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    The bat was taken to a PAWS shelter, where it died in a cage two days later, Haman said. Washingtons wildlife agency then sent the bat to the USGSs National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where scientists confirmed the disease.

    Government scientists representing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey jointly made the grim announcement in a conference call Thursday.

    The first detection of the disease in a state west of the Rockies represents somewhat of a game-changer, said Jeremy Coleman of the USGS. The next closest state with a confirmed detection of the disease is 1,250 miles away in Nebraska, officials said.

    The concern has always been it would show up somewhere in North America and create a new center of detection and spread from there, Coleman said. Weve been bracing for such a jump, fortunately it hasnt happened until now.

    The disease already has killed more than 6 million bats in the eastern United States since the mid-2000s in what one expert has described as the most precipitous decline in American wildlife in recorded history.

    First discovered in 2006 in a popular tourist cave in New York state, white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in bats in 28 states and four Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes the disease Pseudogymnoascus destructans also has been detected in four other states but not in bats.

  • 03/17/2016:  Battling bighorn pneumonia: Researchers, aided by helicopter, capture and study members of Rapid City herd, Rapid City Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    Some bighorn sheep had a very strange day on Friday.

    As they were minding their own business in the Cleghorn Canyon area west of Rapid City, a helicopter repeatedly appeared above them, a man leaned out of it to shoot, a net came exploding out of a gun, and one or two of the sheep at a time were trapped.

    Their legs were bound, their eyes were blindfolded, and they were wrapped upright in orange sling bags with their heads poking out. The bags were attached to the helicopter, which lifted the sheep into the air and took them for a short ride above the treetops.

    In a clearing, the helicopter gently set the sling bags down and flew off.

    A crew of people ran over, untied the bags, then used tarp-like carriers to move the sheep into some nearby shade, where they endured poking and prodding for about 10 minutes before being released.

    Odd as it must have been for the sheep, it was for their own good. Researchers collected blood, fluid and information as part of a research project that could help counteract a pneumonia epidemic in bighorn sheep herds throughout the West.

    "Just about every state that has bighorn sheep has these problems," said Jonathan Jenks, a distinguished professor of natural resource management at South Dakota State University.

    Jenks was one of about a dozen people participating in the ground portion of the capture project Friday. The group also included SDSU graduate and undergraduate students, and employees of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. The helicopter and its crew were from Quicksilver Air, a company that specializes in capturing wildlife for research, disease testing and relocation.

    The team caught 13 sheep during the first day of a weekend-long project that also will include some work with the Custer State Park bighorn sheep herd.

    The sheep captured Friday were from the so-called Rapid City herd, one of five wild herds in the state. The others are at Elk Mountain, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park and, thanks to a recent re-introduction effort, the Lead-Deadwood area. The total number of bighorn sheep in the state is estimated to be 400 to 450.

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    The Rapid City herd includes three sub-herds that occupy areas west and southwest of Rapid City and around Hill City. There were a total of about 150 bighorn sheep in the three sub-herds as recently as the mid-2000s, said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the state GF&P. Now that number is down to about 60.

    Bighorn sheep contract pneumonia from contact with domestic sheep and goats. Some adult bighorn sheep can survive the infection, but most bighorn lambs do not.

    Researchers have determined that certain bighorn sheep are "chronic shedders" of a pneumonia-linked pathogen. Jenks and his students are part of a collaborative effort to determine whether identifying and removing the chronic shedders from a herd might protect lambs from infection and allow the herd to grow again.

    Besides the SDSU researchers and GF&P staff members who were on the ground Friday in the Black Hills, the broader research effort includes people at Washington State University, the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Funding comes from a variety of public and private sources.

    SDSU graduate student Tyler Garwood is studying the Rapid City herd in the field, while fellow SDSU grad student Brandi Felts studies a captive group of chronic shedders at SDSU in Brookings. Both were part of the field crew Friday.

    The operation was surprisingly quiet, as four or five members of the research team scurried around each sheep. Some of the team members held their captives' heads upright, while others collected nasal swabs and blood samples, logged information, affixed tracking collars and ear tags, performed ultrasounds on the ewes, and applied ice and cold water to keep the animals' body temperature from rising to dangerous levels.

    The sheep stayed mostly still. As the work on each sheep was finished, team members carried it a short distance away and released it. Each one sprang up immediately and bounded off.

    Kanta, of the GF&P, said residents can help in the effort to study the pneumonia problem by calling to notify the GF&P if they see bighorn sheep among domestic sheep and goats. He hopes that within a few years, the current research effort will yield findings that could help bolster South Dakota's bighorn sheep numbers.

    "We need this data," Kanta said. "Disease is the number one limiting factor of bighorn sheep in South Dakota."

  • 03/15/2016:  Snake fungal disease spreading in eastern United States, Science News
    (Link to the original article)


    Theres a deadly fungus spreading among snakes in the United States. But dont cheer. As much as snakes might frighten us, theyre important players in the ecosystem, and we really dont want to lose them.

    In 2006, scientists discovered some odd skin infections among snakes in declining populations in New Hampshire. Soon after, fungal infections were found in massasauga rattlesnakes in Illinois, and the disease appeared to be bad enough that it might eradicate the species from the entire state. Over the next decade, researchers found the fungus in more and more states in the eastern United States, in some cases killing up to 90 percent of infected snakes. With the discovery earlier this month of the disease in a young broad-banded watersnake in Louisiana, snake fungal disease has now been found in a total of 14 snake species and 16 states. And scientists are worried that the situation could get worse.

    For years, the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola was the suspected culprit behind the disease, but scientists couldnt tell whether the pathogen was causing the skin lesions they were seeing on dead snakes or if the fungus had just taken advantage of lesions that were there from some other cause.

    But last year, Jeffrey Lorch of the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., and colleagues managed to nail down the link between the fungus and the disease. They infected corn snakes in the lab and observed skin lesions that were identical to those found in wild snakes that had the disease. The experiment also gave some clues as to why snake fungal disease can be deadly: In the lab, infected snakes molted more often, and some exhibited behaviors that, in the wild, could be troublesome, such as anorexia and hanging out in more open areas.

    Chronic O. ophiodiicola infections could have significant impacts on host energy balance and body condition, Lorch and his colleagues wrote in their study, published November 17 in mBio. Failure of infected wild snakes to procure sufficient food could result in a feedback loop that reduces host defenses, facilitating more severe infections that further compromise a snakes ability to obtain prey.

    That fungus shares many similarities with another fungus spreading across the United States Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which causes white-nose syndrome in bats. Like P. destructans, O. ophiodiicola is a soil fungus, and it has many of the same enzymes that have helped white-nose syndrome persist, researchers reported in the October Fungal Ecology. Researchers have also found parallels to the chytrid fungi spreading among frogs and salamanders.

    As much as people dont like snakes, they would probably like life without snakes a lot less. Snakes eat rodents, so if you dont want the mice and rat populations to get out of control, snakes are necessary. (Call them a necessary evil, if you like. The snakes wont mind.)

    Snake fungal disease isnt the only worry for snake populations. A 2010 study in Biology Letters found some worrying evidence of a global decline in snakes, possible related to habitat deterioration, lack of prey and, maybe, climate change. But the status of the worlds snakes right now isnt really clear. Theres so little known about so many snake species that scientists cant say how bad the situation might be.

  • 03/12/2016:  Federal scientists continue to investigate the die-off of one of the northern hemisphere's most abundant seabirds, the common murre, U.S. News
    (Link to the original article)


    By DAN JOLING, Associated Press

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) The common murre on Sarah Schoen's examination table lived a short, hungry life.

    Measurements of its beak and leg indicated it hatched in June. Its stomach and breast showed how it died. The 3-inch-long stomach was empty, and the pectoral muscles that powered its wings, allowing it to "fly" underwater after forage fish, were emaciated.

    "As the bird starves, the body eats the muscle for energy," Schoen said. "The muscle becomes more and more concave."

    Schoen, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and Rob Kaler, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on Friday performed necropsies on common murres, part of an effort by dozens of scientists to explain the massive die-off of common murres that began one year ago.

    Common murres are one of the northern hemisphere's most common seabirds. The Alaska population is estimated at 2.8 million out of a world population of 13 to 20.7 million birds. Awkward on land, common murres can dive to 600 feet hunting fish or krill.

    Die-offs have occurred before but not on this magnitude. Common murres routinely live 20-25 years but have a metabolism rate so high that they can use up fat reserves and drop to a critical threshold for starvation, 65 percent of normal body rate, in three days of not eating.

    Abnormal numbers of carcasses, all showing signs of starvation, began washing ashore on Alaska beaches in March 2015. Numbers spiked to alarming levels in early winter.

    The confirmed carcass count is now up to 36,000, Schoen said. That's far higher than previous common murre die-offs and many beaches have not been surveyed.

    New common murre carcasses continue to be recorded, most recently on Kodiak, Alaska Peninsula communities and the Pribilof Islands.

    "The ravens and eagles make it easy to see that birds are continuing to die and get washed up," Kaler said. The scavengers eat the dead murres.

    No one is offering an estimate of the total deaths. In previous die-off, researchers estimated that only about 15 percent of carcasses reach shores, which means the total may be in the hundreds of thousands.

    The USGS's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, is testing murres for signs of disease or parasites. Though the murres appear to have starved, researchers wonder if something caused them to quit eating or to be less successful funding food.

    Schoen and Kaler were looking for broad, general information about body conditions.

    They extracted samples of liver, which can indicate what the bird ate a week before it died, and muscle, which can indicate what it ate in the last month. They took feather samples for isotope analysis regarding diet.

    Sudden diet changes could be telling. If they were eating at one level of the food web, and a regular food source became unavailable, it could provide insight into the deaths, Schoen said.

    Some details are emerging.

    Schoen in January necropsied 61 birds found in Prince William Sound. Most were birds under 2 years old and 77 percent were female. Female deaths are significant because of the possible effect on the overall population.

    The sampled birds also were heavier than birds sampled in a 1993 die-off, Schoen said.

    "So it doesn't look like just starvation is killing them," Schoen said. "It looks like there's something else that could be tipping them over the edge."

    That reason could be a toxin birds ingested from tainted algae. The reason could be severe winter storms that kept weakened birds from feeding. Or it could be something unknown.

    Federal agencies don't have dedicated funding to solve the common murre mystery but will continue investigating as time allows. Schoen and Kaler said they hope to continue the sampling work with carcasses collected from other areas of Alaska.

  • 03/09/2016:  Devastating white-nose syndrome has reached Minnesota bats, Star Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    White-nose syndrome has announced its dreaded arrival in Minnesota with the discovery that hundreds of bats died in the cold outside Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park this winter.

    The discovery, made in January and announced by state officials Wednesday, was expected, since evidence of the lethal fungus was found in 2013 at two winter hibernation sites, including the Soudan mine.

    But it marks the beginning of an epidemic that is likely to decimate four of Minnesotas seven bat species, all of which play a critical role in controlling insects like mosquitoes, and which provide an estimated $3.7 billion in pest management and pollination to agriculture nationally.

    It also adds new urgency to Minnesota research designed to help bats survive a disease that has killed 99 percent of their colonies elsewhere. Scientists say they have a narrow window of time to figure out what can be done to bring back an animal after its numbers plummet to endangered levels.

    We knew that this was inevitable that bats would start dying, said Morgan Swingen, a scientist at the University of Minnesota Duluth who is coordinating projects that track summer bat reproduction. Now we will have some data that is pre-white-nose syndrome.

    The disease, named for the distinctive white fuzz that appears on the face and wings of infected bats, is caused by an invasive fungus species from Europe. It doesnt harm bats there, for reasons that are not understood, but it has spread relentlessly westward since it was discovered in New York in 2007. Its now in 27 states and five Canadian provinces.

    Three years ago, scientists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found the fungus at the Soudan mine, the largest known bat colony in Minnesota, and a cave at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. They predicted the full-blown disease could strike Minnesotas bats within a few years.

    Then in January, park managers at the Soudan mine noticed hundreds of bats flying out of the mine entrance into the bitter cold at a time when they should be hibernating in its warm depths, a typical behavior for infected colonies.

    They were dying of exposure, said Jim Essig, DNR park manager. They would get caught in snow or ice or would just die.

    Subsequent testing proved that they carried the fungus, state officials said.

    Survey data this month

    Its hard to predict how quickly the disease will spread here, scientists said. But based on experience in other states and Canada, Minnesota is likely to slide into essentially a rapid spread, said Jeremy Coleman, white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Wildlife officials will know more later this month, when they complete their annual survey of bat hibernation sites, but it would not surprise them to find the disease in other caves, said Gerda Nordquist, the DNRs bat expert. Its already hit populations in western Wisconsin that are known to move back and forth across the river to Minnesotas karst region, where caves are plentiful, she said.

    The disease affects the four Minnesota species that winter in caves: the little brown bat and northern long-eared bat, found at the Soudan mine, and the tri-colored bat and big brown bat.

    Since white-nose was discovered in New York, scientists across the country have been racing to find a cure, but combating a fungal disease is exceedingly difficult as anyone with a stubborn toenail fungus knows, said Coleman. But some compounds are showing promise, he said.

    In Minnesota, scientists are trying to better understand where bats go in the summer to reproduce, in the hope they can find a way to protect those sites to give bat populations a boost.

    Swingen works with one of three research teams that capture bats in summer, as they swoop over forest roads and streams, and attach transmitters to the backs of females. The goal is to track them over several weeks to figure out what trees they choose to roost in and raise their young. Eventually, that would lead to a plan for managing forests to protect critical habitat.

    A species is only as good as its reproduction, said Rich Baker, the DNRs endangered species manager. With white-nose syndrome poised to sweep through the states bats, he said, it will be that much more important to provide for the reproduction success of the remaining individuals.

  • 03/09/2016:  White-nose syndrome confirmed in Minnesota bats, Fox 9
    (Link to the original article)


    ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) - White-nose syndrome, a disease that is usually fatal to bats, has been confirmed at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park in northeastern Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, several hundred dead bats were found near the main entrance to the mine in January. Bats that were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in February confirmed the infection of white-nose syndrome.

    White-nose syndrome was first discovered in North America in 2007 in eastern New York. The disease has since spread to 27 states and 5 Canadian provinces, killing more than 5.7 million bats.

    White-nose syndrome gets its name from the fuzzy white fungus found on infected bats. The fungus is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

    The fungus that causes the white-nose syndrome was discovered at Soudan Underground Mine and at Mystery Cave State Park in southeastern Minnesota in 2013.

    Weve been following the recommended procedures to try to protect the bats from white-nose syndrome, said Jim Essig, park manager at Soudan Mine. Now that its here, we will continue to do everything we can at our parks to prevent human transport of fungal spores to other sites.

    For several years, public tours of Soudan Mine and Mystery Cave have begun with a brief lesson on how to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. Visitors are also required to walk across special mats designed to remove spores from their shoes.

    To learn more about white-nose syndrome and Minnesotas bat population, visit www.mndnr.gov/wns.

  • 02/24/2016:  The U.S. has the most diverse salamanders in the world. This deadly fungus could change that, Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    A known killer is on its way to the United States, and government officials recently put out a warning to alert the public. When the feared fungus known as Bsal lands on the backs of newts and salamanders destined for the pet trade, scientists predict that lots of wild salamanders are expected to die.

    This isnt some unfounded alarm for scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, who wrote a report published recently in Royal Society Open Science. The skin-eating Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans meaning salamander devourer has killed repeatedly. By the time it was discovered three years ago in the Netherlands, only 10 of that countrys once abundant fire salamanders were left.

    Bsal is decimating wild salamander populations in Europe and could emerge in the U.S. through the captive amphibian trade, the USGS said in a statement announcing the study. Behind dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, snakes and various reptiles, salamanders ranked pretty high among pets in demand.

    The pathogen hitches a ride on the bodies of the bright-colored, sensitive amphibians and makes its way into the wild when one escapes or is taken outdoors to places that wild salamanders inhabit. Its expected to reach the United States even after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to ban salamander imports in January.

    The Feb. 17 study, led by USGS researcher Katherine Richgels, examined areas where the fungus could thrive and determined that the mortality risk is highest in Mid-Atlantic states, such as Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The Eastern U.S. has the highest diversity of salamanders in the world, and the introduction of this new pathogen is likely to be devastating, Richgels said. Our findings can help with early Bsal detections by highlighting high-risk areas.

    Frog, toad and salamander populations plummeting, U.S. survey finds

    The Pacific Coast and the Appalachian Mountains are also likely to have significant population declines due to high concentrations of diverse salamander species and mild climates that are well suited to Bsal growth, the study said. Some scientists are urging lawmakers to ban salamander imports to protect amphibians in the Americas.

    One study last year showed that Bsal can be reduced with heat treatment and anti-fungal creams when infected salamanders are discovered. Bsal thrives and kills quickly when temperatures are 59 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is less effective when they reach 68 degrees.

    Why is the disappearance of slimy little salamanders around the world and in the United States a cause for concern? They are part of a web of life that continues to vanish, along with bees, monarch butterflies, bats, frogs and even snakes. The impacts of these losses from a deadly mix of disease, competitive invasive species, climate change and pesticides is unknown.

    When Bsal was ravaging salamanders in the Netherlands in 2013, a USGS study reported that frogs, toads and salamanders were vanishing from the American landscape at an alarming pace. The report estimated that seven species including Colorados boreal toad and Nevadas yellow-legged frog faced population drops of 50 percent if their rate of decline held steady for seven years.

    Its a loss of biodiversity. You lose them, and you cant get them back. That seems like a problem, Michael J. Adams, a research ecologist for USGS and the lead author of that study, said at the time.

    The findings of the current study were announced in part to help wildlife managers protect already declining amphibians in the United States from a coming threat that could ensure the grim predictions of the earlier report. USGS researchers said biologists should heed the warning and work to detect the fungus early.

    Bsal would be one of the most significant disease threats to animals since the white-nose syndrome hit bats. In the United States, there isnt a more lethal pathogen than white-nose, which has killed at least 7 million bats of at least seven species since it was first detected in New York about a decade ago, and it is continuing to spread south and west.

    Its an eerie fungus that creeps on bats as they hibernate in large communities in caves and mines, then attacks their tissue. Biologists are still struggling to understand it, let alone cure it. The same can be said of Bsal.

    Amphibians are the most endangered vertebrates in the world, Richgels said. Disease risk assessments like ours can help managers prevent and mitigate losses of vulnerable U.S. salamanders.

  • 02/22/2016:  13 bald eagles found dead on Maryland farm; federal investigation, Nature World News
    (Link to the original article)


    Thirteen bald eagles were found dead at a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore on Saturday, and federal officials are looking into the case.

    Four dead eagles had been noticed by a man looking for antlers that deer had shed, noted Candy Thompson, spokesperson for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, in a Baltimore Sun article.

    The investigators were then called to the farm, which lies west of Idylwild Natural Area, an expanse of 3,800 acres.

    In searching the grounds, offers located nine more dead eagles, said Thompson in the article.

    Maryland officials gave their evidence to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators. There has been no official statement regarding how the bald eagles died.

    Nationwide, bald eagle numbers have steadily increased since the chemical DDT was banned in 1973. The number of nesting pairs rose from 487 in 1963 to 9,789 in 2006. Since then, many states have stopped conducting annual counts of the eagles, because their population levels seem relatively secure.

    Even so, the number one cause of death for bald eagles is humans. The National Wildlife Health Center examined 1,428 individual eagles from 1963 to 1984, concluding that of those 309 casualties (22%) were from gunshot; 329 (23%) were from impact with wires or vehicles; 158 (11%) were from poisoning, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.

  • 02/16/2016:  Algae study could explain all those strange happenings in Alaska's waters, News Miner
    (Link to the original article)


    New research is shedding light on how far toxic algae blooms have spread in Alaska, and surprised scientists are saying this is just the beginning.

    A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest fisheries center found domoic acid and saxitoxin - algae-produced neurotoxins that are deadly in high doses - in 13 marine mammal species across Alaska, including as far north as the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

    Researchers say the study is just the latest piece of evidence that warming ocean temperatures are allowing these blooms to stretch into Arctic ecosystems, threatening marine life and the communities who rely on the sea to survive.

    "The waters are warming, the sea ice is melting, and we are getting more light in those waters," said Kathi Lefebvre, NOAA Fisheries research scientist. "Those conditions, without a doubt, are more favorable for algal growth. With that comes harmful algae."

    The study, which analyzed more than 900 samples taken from stranded or harvested marine mammals in Alaska between 2004 and 2013, found algal toxins in all species sampled, including bowhead whales, fur seals and sea otters.

    "We were surprised," Lefebvre said. "We did not expect these toxins to be present in the food web in high enough levels to be detected in these predators."

    "There seems to be a potential risk for marine mammal health," she added. "Then there's also a seafood security risk, in that these communities rely on and depend on these animals for food."

    "I think that's going to have a huge impact on the Native communities and coastal communities in Alaska," said Bruce Wright, senior scientist for the Aleutian and Pribilof Island Association, the federally recognized tribal organization of Alaska's indigenous Aleut citizens. "I think that we're going to see a number of shifts in our ecosystem as a consequence of warming, and I think some species will be displaced by other species, and others will disappear. There are going to be consequences and people are going to have to adapt."

    NOAA's new study, released last week, comes after months of strange marine life die offs in Alaska. Last year, NOAA declared the deaths of more than 30 whales in the Gulf of Alaska to be an unusual mortality event. Just last month, thousands of dead birds began washing ashore in Prince William Sound.

    "I'm pretty sure that's associated with these algal blooms," Wright said of the bird die offs and other events. Toxic algal blooms in the region, particularly 2015's, likely wipe out entire parts of the lower food chain, he added, the effects of which reverberate through the ecosystem.

    A massive toxic algal bloom, believed the largest ever recorded, reaped havoc in the Pacific in 2015. Stretching from southern California north to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, it prompted the closure of recreational and commercial fisheries across the American and Canadian coastlines.

    "It really does point out that there is a need for more monitoring," Lefebvre said.

    Increasingly warm waters in the north Pacific are believed to be behind other strange disease outbreaks as well. A recent study from the University of Puget Sound found that warmer waters in 2014 contributed to an epidemic of sea star wasting disease in the North Pacific, which decimated starfish populations in the north Pacific.

    "My thought is, absolutely, the environment is changing very rapidly in Alaska," Lefebvre said. "And it's warming, and there are changes in fundamental parts of the ecosystem."

    She added: "And these ecosystems have developed over millions of years, so when they're rapidly changing, the chances they're going to be changed for the better, over all, are very slim."

  • 02/16/2016:  Stony Brook alumna reports on bird flu epidemic, The Statesman
    (Link to the original article)


    Around 2014, a new hybrid strain of avian influenza made its way from Eurasia to the poultry farms of the American Midwest. The virus trailed the migration routes of wild birds to North America. This strain ignited the worst avian flu epidemic in United States history that lasted until late 2015. The highly contagious flu devastated the poultry industry, leading to the death of 50 million birds due to infection or culling by farmers.

    The epidemic caught the interest of Erica Cirino, journalist, environmentalist and Stony Brook graduate. Cirino obtained a masters degree in journalism from Stony Brook University and a bachelors in environmental studies with a minor in environmental humanities. Her lifelong love of animals and work as a wildlife rehabilitator led her to cover the biggest outbreak of avian flu in the United States as her final masters project.

    In September, she made the journey to Wisconsin, the location of the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, to observe the work of renowned microbiologist, Hon Ip, Ph.D.. Cirino spoke about the importance of this site, mentioning that the U.S. Department of Agriculture also had a unit present there and that observing the two different responses was crucial to her story. The U.S. Geological Survey, also known as USGS, was more concerned with studying the virus, meanwhile the Agriculture Department was preoccupied with preventing an all-out agricultural and economic disaster.

    Upon arriving at Ips lab, she was made to sign several waivers stating that she would not sue the USGS in case she contracted the virus. There she witnessed several important processes used in the fight against avian flu, such as polymerase chain reaction, a method used to amplify DNA so researchers can detect mutations in the virus.

    She was also able to meet Chief Epidemiologist Brian McCluskey of the Agriculture Departments Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services Veterinary Services branch. Cirino, who had never dealt with government to such an extent before, remembers the top-secret, highly classified atmosphere of the site.

    Recalling one incident, she said: When we were leaving the USDAs Wildlife Center, the alarm went off, and one of the young men who worked there said Oh s, I think that just triggered Homeland Security.

    She also mentions how the Agriculture Departments main concern was how badly the avian flu would cripple the food supply of the nation. The department made efforts to protect the farmers and consumers, since the cost of doing business goes up as scarcity increases and it gets passed down to consumers.

    In some parts of the United States eggs were very hard to find, and the cost almost doubled, she said.

    In her blog, Cirino cites Tom Elam, Ph.D., president of Farm Econ LLC, who estimated that the damage cost turkey producers up to $530 million and $1.04 billion for egg producers, and that the outbreak cost the U.S. economy approximately $3.3 billion.

    Cirino said she was astonished by the lack of regulation in the poultry industry. Regulations and standards are set by individual farms, and workers are obliged to follow them, she said. However, there are no official government laws to enforce these standards and make sure farms are being run hygienically. The only federally mandated obligation farmers have is once avian flu is detected. This is called C and D or clean and disinfect.

    After depopulating the flock, which is done by gassing the birds or killing them with firefighting foam, farmers then clean and disinfect, she said. So there is a government regulation with that, but in terms of preventing avian influenza, there isnt anything mandated thats in place.

    The lack of regulation is alarming. Cirino described how even as she arrived in Wisconsin in September, and the peak of the outbreak was months past in June 2015, the memory still haunted farmers and government officials. In January 2016, a new strain of the avian influenza caused a mini-outbreak in poultry farms in Indiana, demonstrating that despite the farmers and government scientists best efforts, the nightmare is still not over for the fowl farmers of the Midwest.

    However, to end on a positive note, Cirino reassured that the strain of the virus currently in North America was a hybrid and not the same as the avian flu strain found in Eurasia. This means that the virus in the United States currently cannot be passed on from infected birds to humans, easing some worries for the time being.

  • 02/01/2016:  Massive bird die-off puzzles Alaskan scientists, Livescience
    (Link to the original article)


    Thousands of dead seabirds have washed up on Alaskan shores over the past nine months. And while a dead bird washing ashore is a fairly common occurrence, these large numbers are leaving scientists concerned and confused.

    Nearly 8,000 common murres (Uria aalge) were found along the shores of Whittier, Alaska, in early January. Over the New Year's holiday, Alaska experienced four days of gale-force winds from the southeast that resulted in dead birds washing ashore, said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Scientists have known for some time that the key to surviving strong storm winds is having an energy reserve, according to an expert at Tufts University, and Kaler and his colleagues think that the common murres were not finding enough food this season, which may be why so many didn't make it through the storm.

    In cases like these, experts typically measure the number of dead birds per kilometer, said Julia Parrish, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle and executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), which is one of the organizations studying areas where these birds are washing ashore, alongside the USFWS and the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC). For the Whittier survey, the final measurements came to approximately 4,600 birds per kilometer, Parrish told Live Science. 5 Mysterious Animal Die-Offs

    The common murre is "one of the most abundant and widespread seabirds in Alaska," Kaler told Live Science in an email. While other dead seabirds are being reported on Pacific shorelines, current reports indicate that about 99 percent of the animals are common murres, Kaler said.

    Seeing a dead seabird on the beach is not altogether unusual, especially during September and October, when the birds are leaving their breeding colonies, Parrish said. However, dead common murres started showing up in Alaska in March.

    "This is really weird, because that is the beginning of the breeding season," Parrish said. "That's when seabirds are usually fat and sassy."

    What's going on?

    So far, the NWHC has examined 100 bird carcasses, and most of the birds seem to have died due to starvation, Kaler told Live Science.

    "While we know murres are starving," Kaler said, "we do not understand the mechanism."

    There is a chance that saxitoxin, a toxin related to paralytic shellfish poisoning, or domoic acid, a toxin that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, could be responsible for some of these deaths, he said. But both of these toxins are difficult to detect in birds that have nothing in their stomachs or gastrointestinal tracts, which was the case with most of these animals, Kaler said.

    In the past, seabird die-off events in which thousands of birds die in a short period of time have been associated with strong El Nio events, Kaler said. In 1993, there was another die-off of common murres recorded in the northern Gulf of Alaska, where scientists found about 3,500 dead or dying common murres along the shoreline over a period of six months. Scientists calculated that over that period, about 10,900 bird carcasses actually made it to shore, according to a 1997 study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

    Because researchers were able to monitor only a small fraction of the beaches in Alaska, that study's scientists projected that the actual final death count in 1993 was at least 120,000 birds.

    With this most recent event, "we assume the die-off is connected to one of the largest oceanographic-atmospheric events, known as 'The Blob,'" Kaler said. This event is the presence of a large area of water that falls well above the average temperature usually observed in the North Pacific, he said. "We do not know how that this relates to El Nio or climate warming, but we believe they are factors," Kaler said.

    The USFWS also noted in a recent bulletin that common murres have turned up at locations as far inland as Fairbanks, Alaska, where the birds have been seen swimming in rivers and lakes. Wildlife biologists consider this to be unusual behavior, since common murres are seabirds and so don't usually show up so far inland, Parrish told Live Science.

    Additionally, while the die-off has been most visible in Alaska, similar events affected seabird populations in Washington, Oregon and California during the months of September and October, Parrish said.

    What does this mean?

    The behaviors of seabirds are often indicators of what is happening in the marine system, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Current estimates of the common murre death toll in the recent die-off have suggested that more than 100,000 birds have probably died over the past nine months, and dead birds are likely to continue showing up through the spring, Kaler said.

    It is important to note that this high death count doesn't mean that common murres are in danger as a species. There are an estimated 2.8 million common murres in Alaska, Parrish said. This means that current estimates of the die-off account for only approximately 3 percent of the total common murre population in the state.

    That's not to say that the appearance of large numbers of dead birds on beaches isn't of concern, Parrish said. Scientists are speculating that this event indicates a species struggling to deal with altered circumstances, he said.

    "When there are heat waves during the summertime, you always hear about mortalities in the inner city from people who don't have air conditioning and so they just have to deal with" the heat, Parrish said. "None of these birds have air conditioning."

  • 01/25/2016:  Thousands of seabirds die in Alaska; Federal agency to investigate deaths, Latin Post
    (Link to the original article)


    A huge number of bird carcasses were found on Alaskan Coasts, leading to the federal government to conduct an investigation.

    According to the Washington Post, thousand of dead common murres, a bird native to Alaska, have been found off the state's sea coasts.

    With the death toll reaching an alarming rate, the National Wildlife Health Center finally issued a bulletin regarding the the rising incident of common murres deaths over the past 11 months. Apart from that, the Alaskan sea bird deaths are also drawing the attention of other federal and state agencies.

    As noted by Julie Lenoch, deputy director of the wildlife center, she and her team are looking for alleged large-scale events that may have poisoned the birds. The agency is also investigating whether the cause of death can also affect other species of animals.

    The common murre is noted to be North America's most abundant sea bird species, which can be usually found residing all throughout the Artic. Dead bodies of these birds ranged from dozens to thousands since March and have been found on beaches of Alaska and east of Aleutian Islands.

    But apart from the common murre, other sea bird species such as the thick-billed murres, black-legged kittwakes, horned and tufted puffins, murrelets, glaucous-winged gulls and short-tailed shearwaters were also found dead on the coasts.

    As of current press time, no evidence of poisoning has been found, which led to researchers to theorize that the sea birds are dying of starvation.

    According to a similar report by KUAC,org, the ocean's unusually warm waters may have caused the fishes, which are the usual food of sea birds, to disappear, leading to the common murre to die of starvation.

    Experts explained that warm waters have sharply decreased the number of fishes that these birds eat in the sea, due to the fact that there's less "upwelling" and circulation on warm waters, resulting into planktons going up from the lower depths of the ocean for the fish to feed on.

    Robb Kaler, a migratory bird expert said that this has never happened before and added that, "At many colonies in the western Gulf of Alaska, murres completely failed reproductively, and that's really unusual."

    Kaler noted that they have also never seen a complete abandonment of a bird colony, which they attributed to lack of food source.

    The researchers said that the murres have been going back and forth searching for a viable food source, and have died simply to a combination of hunger and exhaustion.

  • 01/24/2016:  Federal agency calls for research into seabird deaths, Juneau Empire
    (Link to the original article)


    ANCHORAGE A federal laboratory that assesses disease in wildlife is calling for more research into the deaths of thousands of common murres and other seabirds off Alaskas coast.

    The National Wildlife Health Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, on Friday issued a wildlife bulletin on emaciated common murres found dead over the past 11 months.

    Alaska seabird deaths are getting the attention of multiple federal and state agencies, said Julie Lenoch, deputy director of the wildlife health center in Madison, Wisconsin. The center issues bulletins when theres a need for an information exchange about a significant wildlife health threat, Lenoch said.

    We really look for large-scale events that may be toxic or infectious in nature, may pose an additional threat to other species, or simply for awareness, she said.

    Common murres are one of North Americas most abundant seabirds and are found throughout the Arctic. Murre carcasses from the dozens to thousands since March have been found on beaches from the Alaska Panhandle to the east Aleutian Islands.

    From May to September, seabird deaths also included thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, horned and tufted puffins, murrelets, glaucous-winged gulls and sooty and short-tailed shearwaters. Some bird deaths occurred at the same time agencies were investigating whale and sea otter deaths. A connection to concurrent marine mammal deaths has not been established, Lenoch said.

    Theres still a lot of information pending and things we need to check to see if theyre related, she said.

    Common murres have been hit especially hard. During the first week of January, federal officials found an estimated 8,000 dead common murres on the beaches of Whittier, a Prince William Sound community.

    Large floating aggregations of lethargic murres are being reported in Prince William Sound. The murres are exhibiting minimal avoidance behavior, according to the bulletin.

    Deaths have not abated in the last three weeks.

    Theyre still finding significant numbers of carcasses, Lenoch said.

    Through Thursday, the center had examined 106 seabird carcasses, including 81 common murres, and found no evidence of infectious disease.

    The most common finding for both juvenile and adult specimens has been emaciation, the bulletin said.

    Results are pending for algal toxins in testing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Greenwater Laboratories.

    Common murres are deep divers that feed on small fish such as herring, juvenile cod and capelin. Alaska wildlife officials say murres may be starving because they cannot find schools of forage fish affected by warmer water tied to global warming, the El Nino weather pattern or the Pacific Blob, a mass of warm water in the North Pacific.

    The bulletin calls for investigating the effects of a warmer ocean.

    Further research is needed to determine if potential impacts of recent unprecedented warm ocean temperatures may be affecting seabird prey distribution or abundance, the bulletin said.

  • 01/22/2016:  Federal agency calls for research into Alaska seabird deaths, Merced Sun-Star
    (Link to the original article)


    A federal laboratory that assesses disease in wildlife is calling for more research into the deaths of thousands of common murres and other seabirds off Alaska's coast.

    The National Wildlife Health Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, on Friday issued a wildlife bulletin on emaciated common murres found dead over the past 11 months.

    Alaska seabird deaths are getting the attention of multiple federal and state agencies, said Julie Lenoch, deputy director of the wildlife health center in Madison, Wisconsin. The center issues bulletins when there's a need for an information exchange about a significant wildlife health threat, Lenoch said.

    "We really look for large-scale events that may be toxic or infectious in nature, may pose an additional threat to other species, or simply for awareness," she said.

    Common murres are one of North America's most abundant seabirds and are found throughout the Arctic. Murre carcasses from the dozens to thousands since March have been found on beaches from the Alaska Panhandle to the east Aleutian Islands.

    From May to September, seabird deaths also included thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, horned and tufted puffins, murrelets, glaucous-winged gulls and sooty and short-tailed shearwaters. Some bird deaths occurred at the same time agencies were investigating whale and sea otter deaths. A connection to concurrent marine mammal deaths has not been established, Lenoch said.

    "There's still a lot of information pending and things we need to check to see if they're related," she said.

    Common murres have been hit especially hard. During the first week of January, federal officials found an estimated 8,000 dead common murres on the beaches of Whittier, a Prince William Sound community.

    Large floating aggregations of lethargic murres are being reported in Prince William Sound. The murres are "exhibiting minimal avoidance behavior," according to the bulletin.

    Deaths have not abated in the last three weeks.

    "They're still finding significant numbers of carcasses," Lenoch said.

    Through Thursday, the center had examined 106 seabird carcasses, including 81 common murres, and found no evidence of infectious disease.

    "The most common finding for both juvenile and adult specimens has been emaciation," the bulletin said.

    Results are pending for algal toxins in testing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Greenwater Laboratories.

    Common murres are deep divers that feed on small fish such as herring, juvenile cod and capelin. Alaska wildlife officials say murres may be starving because they cannot find schools of forage fish affected by warmer water tied to global warming, the El Nino weather pattern or the Pacific Blob, a mass of warm water in the North Pacific.

    The bulletin calls for investigating the effects of a warmer ocean.

    "Further research is needed to determine if potential impacts of recent unprecedented warm ocean temperatures may be affecting seabird prey distribution or abundance," the bulletin said.

    Read more here: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/article56129215.html#storylink=cpy

  • 01/22/2016:  Mass seabird deaths prompt federal attention, Alaska Public Media
    (Link to the original article)


    A federal agency is calling for more research into large-scale mortality of common murres and other seabirds off Alaskas coast.

    The National Wildlife Health Center, an arm of the U.S. Geological Survey that assesses the impact of disease on wildlife, on Friday issued a wildlife bulletin on the deaths of common murres over the last 11 months.

    Murre carcasses from the dozens to thousands have been found on beaches from the Alaska Panhandle to the east Aleutian Islands.

    The bulletin notes large floating aggregations of lethargic murres in Prince William Sound that are exhibiting minimal avoidance behavior.

    Testing of carcasses has found most dead birds to be emaciated.

    The bulletin says more research is needed to determine whether unprecedented warm ocean temperatures may be affecting seabird prey.

  • 01/18/2016:  Animals die in large numbers, and researchers scratch their heads, NY Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Are die-offs occurring more often?

    To the casual reader, it can certainly seem that reports emerge on a regular basis of thousands of animals of a species suddenly dying.

    The latest victims are common murres in the Northeast Pacific. They have been dying for months, but estimates of the toll jumped sharply when David Irons, a retired United States Fish and Wildlife Service biologist walking a beach in Whittier, Alaska, found close to 8,000 dead birds in early January.

    Since then, scouting teams in boats from Fish and Wildlife, the United States Geological Survey and the Prince William Sound Science Center counted another 10,000 to 12,000 dead murres on beaches and in the open water of Prince William Sound, said Kathy Kuletz, a seabird specialist for the Alaska region with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    As with most die-offs, theories are close at hand. Murres weigh about two pounds and live in large groups, diving to feed on fish like juvenile pollock. In winter, they usually gather near the continental shelf, and they need to eat a lot to keep going, up to half their body weight in a day.

    There are more than two million of them in Alaskan waters alone. But last year was not good for them.

    The birds are emaciated and seem to be starving, according to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, which has found no evidence of disease or toxins that could cause such deaths.

    When there are changes in water temperature, as has been occurring in the Northeast Pacific, food fish may disappear.

    Still, this die-off has surprised experts, because it has been going on for around a year and it covers such a vast area.

    Most die-offs in the past have been more concentrated in time and space, said John F. Piatt, a seabird expert with the United States Geological Survey in Anchorage.

    The effects of the current El Nio, a change in ocean currents, also have not yet reached Alaska. If history is any guide, El Nio means trouble to murres.

    I still dont think weve seen the worst, said Dr. Piatt, who said it was likely that 100,000 or more birds had died and speculated that if the worst happened, the deaths could reach into the many hundreds of thousands.

    A tougher question for researchers is trying to understand how one population crash fits in with die-offs of other animals and whether die-offs have been increasing in recent years.

    Certainly, there are remarkable recent events, like the death of half of all saiga antelope last year. And moose, bees and dolphins off the East Coast have also had die-offs in recent years.

    Samuel Fey, a researcher in biology at Yale University, was moved by news media attention of die-offs to research whether they were really increasing over time. These individual events garner so much attention, he said. They have shock and awe value.

    So he and Stephanie Carlson, a specialist in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a group of other researchers put together a database of more than 700 such events worldwide in 2,400 animal populations dating to the late 19th century.

    Their analysis, published a year ago, showed that the magnitude of die-offs since about 1940 had increased. But in terms of frequency, all they could say was that reports of die-offs were certainly increasing.

    They could not say whether the reports represented a real increase or just increased attention because, as Dr. Fey said last week after reports of the murre deaths, there is no central database of big die-offs of birds, fish, frogs and other animals.

    He is, however, working to remedy this with Dr. Julie Lenoch, a veterinarian and deputy director of the National Wildlife Health Center of the geological survey in Madison, Wis.

    The center does necropsies on wild animals sent to it by agencies like Fish and Wildlife and keeps track of what it finds. But, Dr. Lenoch said, We only test samples we receive.

    And because that is their only lens on the phenomenon of die-offs, they are handicapped in trying to answer bigger questions.

    Understanding both the cause and consequence of animal die-offs is critically important, she said, because disease may be involved, like rabies, West Nile or avian influenza, that could spread to farm animals, domestic animals or humans. Toxic chemicals may be a cause, and those can affect other animals and humans.

    Or changes in climate or weather may be involved, and recognizing patterns could help prepare for future events and understand natural systems better.

    Some databases exist now. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has one for oceanic wildlife. And the geological survey has a historical database of animal die-offs called Whispers that went online about a year ago. Separate databases are not adequate, however, Dr. Lenoch said. So she and Dr. Fey are hoping to have a meeting of representatives of state and federal agencies and others involved in animal care to begin work on creating a central database.

    For the murres, there is nothing to be done other than observe, study and record the deaths, with an eye to understanding what they say about the effects of changes in the ocean.

    The birds have a great capacity to rebound, said Dr. Piatt. From 1984 to 1985, he said, 95 percent of the common murres in the Barents Sea off Russia and Norway disappeared, apparently because of overfishing of capelin. Today, there are more of them there than ever.

    On the other hand, when murres near the Farallon Islands off California had a population crash in 1983, some colonies almost vanished, and population growth was very slow after the die-off.

    Murres can rebound, Dr. Piatt said, but sometimes, they dont.

  • 01/14/2016:  Warm ocean temps could be starving Alaskan seabirds,
    (Link to the original article)


    An estimated 8,000 black and white seabirds, called murres, were found dead on a beach in Alaska earlier this month.

    Their bodies were found floating in the surf and washed ashore in the Prince William Sound community of Whittier. Wildlife ecologist Dan Grear said this is the biggest die off of the common murre in Alaska this season, but not the first.

    "Carcasses started to be noticed this fall in Alaska, and as the winter has progressed into December and early January, observers ... have started to find thousands of dead murres on specific beaches, Grear said.

    Grear works at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, which investigates animal health conditions and diseases.

    "I think we've examined close to 100 of these murres that theyve shipped down, Grear said. The consistent finding is that these murres are emaciated, they have very poor body condition."

    Alaskan scientists have also observed live birds changing their flight patterns.

    "They started to see murres show up farther inland on lakes and rivers, which suggests that the murres are having trouble finding appropriate food at sea, Grear said.

    Murres may be starving to death because of abnormally warm surface water temperatures in the North Pacific over the past year. The seabirds eat by diving into the water to catch fish, and have to consume the equivalent of 10 to 30 percent of their body weight every day.

    Scientists believe the abnormally warm waters of the Pacific are either killing off the murres' prey, or pushing them into cooler waters.

    "(The fish) could be too deep, they could be moving to areas in the ocean where the murres aren't used to finding them, Grear said. These are all now just hypothesis that the science folks up in Alaska are trying to figure out how to test."

    As they figure out what's happening now, those scientists are also worried about what the warming Pacific waters of an expected 2016 El Nino will mean for both the murres and their aquatic prey.

  • 01/12/2016:  Thousands of starved birds found on Alaska beaches, UPI
    (Link to the original article)


    KODIAK, Alaska, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Thousands of dead and dying common murres, one of the most common seabirds in the Pacific Northwest, have been washing ashore in Alaska. Federal scientists are currently investigating the cause.

    "Seabird mortality events occur occasionally, especially after a hard winter, and causes are often difficult to determine," researchers with the Federal Wildlife Service wrote in a recent press release. "This current die-off, however, appears to be unusually large."

    Murres typically spend the winter months offshore, but have been showing up in unusually large numbers along the coast of Alaska. Birds have been observed inhabiting inland locales, a rarity.

    Researchers believe the unusual behavior and mass die-off is the result of changes in the ecosystem brought on by the ongoing El Nio weather system and potentially exacerbated by global warming.

    Unusually warm waters have propagated up and down the West Coast over the last year, resulting in a variety of odd and disheartening ecological phenomena -- from the arrival of exotic snakes to the emaciation of sea lions.

    According to Alaska Public Radio, whales, sea otters and fish have all experienced abnormally high mortality rates over the last several months.

    The reduction in the number of juvenile fish is bad news for seabirds like the murre, who typically feed on schools of young herring, capelin and pollock. Though they haven't declared an official cause of the ongoing die-off, many suggest the loss of a reliable winter food source is to blame.

    More than 100 deceased murre specimens have been collected from Alaskan beaches and sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., where they will undergo disease and toxicological testing.

    Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Corcoran has been documenting the die-off in Kodiak. She says the birds aren't sick, just starved.

    "With only one exception, all of our birds have been emaciated," Corcoran said. "No body fat. And no stomach contents."

    U.S. Geological Survey researcher John Piatt has been documenting the fatalities in Whittier, Alaska, where the die-off has been especially large. His observations are much the same as Corcoran's.

    "These birds are wicked skinny -- no fat reserves," Piatt told Alaska Dispatch News. "It's an awful way to die, and they're dying en masse."

    "It's the same story everywhere," Corcoran added. "We're seeing a big increase in the number of dead common murres. With the large scale of the event, I think what's most commonly believed at this point is that it's related to the warm sea surface temperature."

  • 01/11/2016:  Starvation suspected in massive die-off of Alaska birds, The Denver Post
    (Link to the original article)


    ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) Seabird biologist David Irons drove recently to the Prince William Sound community of Whittier to check on a friend's boat and spotted white blobs along the tide line of the rocky Alaska beach. He thought they were patches of snow.

    A closer look revealed that the white patches were emaciated common murres, one of North America's most abundant seabirds, washed ashore after apparently starving to death.

    "It was pretty horrifying," Irons said. "The live ones standing along the dead ones were even worse."

    Murre die-offs have occurred in previous winters but not in the numbers Alaska is seeing. Federal researchers won't estimate the number, and are trying to gauge the scope and cause of the die-off while acknowledging there's little they can do.

    Scientists say the die-offs could be a sign of ecosystem changes that have reduced the numbers of the forage fish that murres depend upon. Warmer water surface temperatures, possibly due to global warming or the El Nino weather pattern, may have affected murre prey, including herring, capelin and juvenile pollock.

    There are about 2.8 million breeding common murres in 230 Alaska colonies, part of a worldwide population of 13 to 20.7 million birds. Awkward on land, their short, powerful wings make them extraordinary swimmers, "flying" beneath the surface as deep as 600 feet to hunt for fish.

    An estimated 8,000 of the black and white birds were found dead on the Whittier beach, said John Piatt, research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center.

    "That's unprecedented, that sheer number in one location is off the charts," he said.

    Researchers late last week planned to survey more remote beaches.

    Winter storms can affect murres' ability to hunt. An estimated 185,000 common murres died in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Researchers estimate that 120,000 died in a 1993 winter event. But this year is different.

    "The length of time we've been seeing dead birds, and the geographic scope, is much greater than before in other die-off events," said Kathy Kuletz, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're looking at many times that. So possibly a good chunk of the population."

    In 2008, Irons was lead author on a research paper that correlated natural die-offs to climate change and rising ocean temperatures. Using data from murre colonies around the circumpolar north, researchers found murres died in years when ocean surface temperature water increased by just a few degrees.

    Murre prey such as capelin, a forage fish in the smelt family, live in a narrow band of cool water, said Irons, who retired last year after 36 years with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and California.

    "If the water (temperature) goes above that threshold, they're out of there," Irons said. "They either die or they move."

    No one monitors forage fish off Alaska, Irons said. "So when they're gone, no one has any information on them to show that they're gone, except birds are showing us they're gone," he said.

    Murres high energy requirement means they have to eat prey matching 10 to 30 percent of their body mass daily. They look for fish in dense schools. "If you don't have these dense schools of prey, they don't seem to do very well," Irons said.

    Water temperatures in 2015 were above average and biologists detected signs of trouble. Murres usually found on the outer continental shelf began to show up near shore, including a Juneau boat harbor where they competed with sea lions for herring.

    Each spring, murres nest shoulder to shoulder on cliffs or slopes. Females synchronize laying single light bulb-shaped eggs especially suited for a ledge: if they roll, they roll in a circle instead of off the precipice.

    Many females in 2015, however, were too weak to breed, Kuletz said.

    Finding murre carcasses in summer is unusual but small numbers of birds were reported in Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and other locations. Deaths were reported along the Pacific coast as far south as California.

    When autumn arrived, inland Alaskans spotted what looked like skinny penguins walking on roadways. By December, murres had been spotted in near Fairbanks, roughly 360 miles from the ocean. Some were turned over to bird rehabilitation facilities.



    Strong North Pacific winter storms in December that prevented weakened birds from foraging may have been the final blow.

    A trickle of rescued birds turned into a flood. Anchorage's Bird Learning and Treatment Center received 160 stranded murres in the last three months of 2015. Another 230 murres arrived in the first five days of 2016.

    The USGS National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, has examined about 100 carcasses and detected no parasites or disease that may have contributed to murres not eating, said wildlife disease specialist Barbara Bodenstein.

    If the die-off is tied to low numbers of forage fish brought on by a warming ocean, the rest of 2016 does not bode well for murres, Piatt said.

    The phenomenon known as the Pacific Blob, a mass of warm water in the North Pacific, has cooled but is still around. Oceanographers predict for 2016 an extreme El Nino, the natural warming of the central Pacific that changes weather worldwide.

    "What's that going to do on top of the warming effect we've had in the last six months to a year?" Piatt said. "I'm asking because I don't know."

  • 12/31/2015:  State investigating suspicious deaths of albatross, SF Gate
    (Link to the original article)


    ONOLULU (AP) State officials have announced they are launching an investigation into the deaths of three Laysan albatross and the destruction of several of the birds' nests in the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.

    A report from a concerned citizen prompted a Department of Land and Natural Resources officer to conduct a site visit Tuesday. The officer was joined by the natural area reserve manager, a natural area reserve specialist and a seabird biologist, KHON-TV reported (http://bit.ly/1P0Zmsl).

    As of last week, there were 75 active nests at Kaena. The site visit revealed that 15 nests had eggs that were smashed or missing. Of those nests, 12 of the attending adults are missing and bodies of three adult birds were found.

    "We had evidence that several of the birds had their feet cut off," said Thomas Friel, chief of the department's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement. "It was in such a way that we believe it not to be predation from a wild animal, but rather from humans."

    Seabird monitoring equipment worth more than $3,000 was also reported missing.

    The bodies of the three adult birds are being sent to U.S. Geological Survey's Honolulu office, where a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. The process is expected to take several weeks.

    DNLR is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Honolulu Police Department on its investigation.

    DNLR, with the help of wildlife organizations and individuals across the state, is offering a $10,000 reward for an arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the crime.

  • 12/22/2015:  Murre die-off around Kachemak Bay in thousands, KBBI
    (Link to the original article)


    Die-offs of Common Murres have been taking place across Alaska since Summer and the latest report is from Kachemak Bay, according to biologists with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer.

    Wildlife Biologist, Leslie Slater, says there have been two waves of mortality.

    This die-off started to be noticed, around mid-July in certain parts of the state. And so it continued at some level, a fairly high, noticeable level for a couple weeks and then it seemed to diminish and then there seemed to be resurgence again of the number of carcasses that we were seeing on beaches, and that happened in mid-November or so," Said Slater.

    There have been die-offs reported of the penguin-like sea birds in Cold Bay in July and in Kodiak in November. Slater says theyve also had reports from Seward, Sitka and Prince William Sound. In November starving and dead Murres turned up around the Mat-su and Anchorage areas, farther inland than usual.

    It seems that then they would either be disoriented, which could be the result of ingesting a toxin or they could be very desperate in searching for food and just kept traveling up the inlet, said Slater.

    Seabird die-offs have been recorded all along the west coast of the U.S. in Washington, Oregon and California this year. Slater estimates that a large number of Murres have died around Kachemak bay.

    Based on the duration of the time that weve had carcasses being reported to us, I would say, its into the thousands, certainly, throughout Kachemak Bay, said Slater.

    The dead Murres are being counted by citizen scientists all along the Spit and along the beach up to Anchor Point.

    Theyve been doing this for several years and so theres been a baseline established of what we would consider being a normal winter and so far, its been at least six times the normal background amount thats been observed, said Slater.

    Slater says the citizen scientists mark the Murres with color-coded zip ties around a wing or foot and if you see a bird with a zip tie she says you should not disturb it because its part of a study.

    And anecdotal reports of Dead Murres and other birds are coming in from across the Bay. Theyve also had reports of some dead tufted puffins, horned puffins and an ancient murrelet. She says the birds, along with Murres, feed on small fish or dive to get invertebrates during summer and dive for squid, crustaceans and krill during winter.

    Slater says Murre carcasses were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin where bird flu was ruled out. The dead birds seem to have starved, but Slater says there could be other factors.

    "There are analysis that are pending. So it could be something that had to do with PSP, like paralytic shelfish poisoning that was ingested at some point, but that is still unkown," said Slater.

    Results from those tests should be back in January. Thats also when Biologist, Heather Renner, with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge will be presenting a paper on the Murre die-off at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage.

  • 12/17/2015:  Avian Cholera detected in Kansas, KSAL.com
    (Link to the original article)


    Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism staff at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Barton County, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge just 30 miles to the south are closely monitoring waterfowl populations at the wetlands after dead geese were observed. Staff at both areas picked up dead birds last week and sent samples for testing.

    Lab results confirmed that avian cholera, a contagious disease resulting from infection by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, was the cause of death. This strain of bacteria commonly affects geese, coots, gulls and crows. Most of the dead birds found have been snow geese.

    We picked up about 30 dead geese on Monday, December 14, said Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area manager Karl Grover. Those birds had died between last Friday and Monday, so were seeing about 10 dead birds a day. We estimate that the Bottoms is holding between 75,000 and 150,000 geese, half of which are snows, and about 10,000 ducks.

    USFWS staff at Quivira NWR gave similar estimates. Refuge manager Mike Oldham said some geese moved off of the refuge after the weekend.

    We probably have about 80,000 geese and about half of them are snow geese, Oldham said. Were picking up about 4-5 dead birds per day.

    While its not uncommon for a contagious disease to affect waterfowl when large numbers are concentrated, avian cholera deaths are not common in Kansas. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, humans are not at high risk for infection with the bacteria strain causing avian cholera. However, its recommended that hunters and their dogs avoid contact with any sick or dead birds.

    Avian cholera quickly overcomes infected birds, resulting in death in as little as 6-12 hours, although 24-48 hours is more common. Infected birds may exhibit signs such as convulsions, throwing head back between wings, swimming in circles, erratic flight and miscalculated landing attempts.

    Avian cholera should not be confused with avian influenza, which is a highly pathogenic virus that infected millions of poultry flocks in the upper Midwest last summer.

  • 11/23/2015:  Culprit identified in mysterious snake disease hitting the East Coast, Popular Science
    (Link to the original article)


    Snakes slither, rattle and constrict their way across movie screens and nightmares. But these reptiles play a vital role in ecosystems around the world, keeping down pest populations. Unfortunately, here in the United States, some snakes are starting to get sick.

    In a paper published today in the journal mBio, researchers with the United States Geological Survey announced that they've discovered the culprit responsible for causing a deadly skin infection in snakes, a fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola.

    "There is a fear that Ophidiomyces could drive at least some populations of snakes to extinction," study author Jeffrey Lorch said in a statement.

    The fungus is responsible for a disease called snake fungal disease, or SFD. Snakes with SFD develop lesions on their skin, which makes them shed more frequently than a healthy snake. An infected snake can get eye infections, a swollen head, and is more likely to display unsafe behaviors such as staying too long in the open, where it is more likely to run into trouble from other predators.

    Since scientists first saw this disease in 2006, seven species of snake have been identified with the disease, with reports coming in from nine states in the Eastern United States, from Florida to Wisconsin. Previously, researchers knew that Ophidiomyces was always present in infected snakes, but other fungi were usually present as well, so they weren't able to definitively point to Ophidiomyces as the culprit. Just like a doctor has to diagnose a disease before starting treatment, without an accurate identification, biologists couldn't develop countermeasures to keep SFD from spreading.

    By isolating the Ophidiomyces fungus from an infected snake and introducing it to healthy snakes in a lab, the researchers were able to show that Ophidiomyces is, in fact, responsible for SFD. Researchers hope that by identifying the fungal culprit they can plan a regimen that might keep wild snake populations healthy long into the future.

    SFD isn't the only fungal disease affecting wildlife. White Nose Syndrome kills millions of bats each year, and a chytrid fungus plagues amphibians. Researchers are still working on treatments for the diseases.

  • 11/17/2015:  Fungus killing snakes in eastern and midwestern U.S. is pinpointed, The Wall Street Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    A new federal study documents for the first time that a specific fungus is the cause of a disease that is killing an unusually high number of snakes in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S.

    The findings announced Tuesday by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that a fungus known as Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola is the cause behind the skin infections known as snake-fungal disease.

    Outbreaks of the sometimes fatal disease have been confirmed over the past decade in nine states: Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

    By pinpointing the cause of the disease, scientists can better help conserve snake populations threatened by the disease that play an important role in the environment, said Jeffrey Lorch, a USGS National Wildlife Health Center scientist and lead author of the study published in the online journal mBio.

    Among other benefits, snakes help keep rodent populations in check and serve as a food source for other predators including hawks and eagles, scientists say.

    We dont know what will happen if snakes disappear, but there is a concern it could be bad for the ecosystem as a whole, said Mr. Lorch, who is based in Madison, Wis.

    Rising snake mortality has been a concern world-wide. A 2010 study by Britains Centre for Ecology and Hydrology documented alarming declines in 17 snake populations from the U.K. to France, Italy, Nigeria and Australia.

    While factors including habitat loss were blamed, the British researchers said they suspected climate change was the root cause because the same pattern of rising deaths was happening across multiple continents and geographic zones.

    In their report, the USGS researchers suggested a fungus infecting American snakes could be more abundant, and reptiles more susceptible to it, because of warming temperatures.

    The first documented case of population declines associated with skin infections in U.S. snakes was in New Hampshire, where a group of timber rattlesnakes fell by 50% from 2006 to 2007, USGS researchers said.

    After a similar outbreak was reported in Illinois, the USGS undertook its wider study. Other reptiles known to be infected so far include the northern water snake, eastern racer, massasauga, pygmy rattlesnake and milk snake.

  • 11/17/2015:  Fungus causes emerging snake disease found in Eastern US, Phys.org
    (Link to the original article)


    Researchers working for the U.S. Geological Survey have identified the fungal culprit behind an often deadly skin infection in snakes in the eastern U.S. Published this week in mBio, an online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, the research shows that Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola is the definitive cause of snake fungal disease (SFD), which will help researchers pinpoint why it is emerging as a threat to snake populations and how its impacts can be mitigated.

    SFD joins a list of fungal diseases causing decimation to animal populations, including white-nose syndrome in bats and chytridiomycosis in frogs and amphibians. Different fungi cause the three conditions, but their potential for destruction raises concerns.

    "Unlike many bacterial and viral pathogens, fungal spores can live in the environment without a host," explains Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. "And that means that as the host population declines, the fungus can persist in the environment, which could potentially mean it could drive hosts to extinction."

    Since 2009, Lorch and his colleagues at the center have diagnosed SFD in seven species of snakes from nine different states, all in the eastern half of the U.S. In some species, such as massasauga rattlesnakes found in Illinois, the infection appears to have a mortality rate of 100%. For other species, the infection is not as deadly. "There is a fear that Ophidiomyces could drive at least some populations of snakes to extinction," says Lorch.

    Although skin lesions on infected snakes often contained Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, no one had shown the definitive laboratory proof that it was causing the disease. The USGS-led team ran those experiments by culturing O. ophiodiicola from an infected wild water snake, and then using it to inoculate five different skin sites on eight corn snakes in the laboratory. All eight snakes developed swelling and scale lesions characteristic of SFD. In contrast, none of the seven control group snakes, which were sham inoculated with saline solution, developed lesions.

    The lesions appeared within 4-8 days and were more likely to form at sites that had first been rubbed with sandpaper to cause an abrasion. After about two weeks, the infected snakes had rough, brown crusty lesions and proceeded to molt. Infected snakes molted more frequently, possibly as an immune response that helps snakes shed the fungus. Two infected snakes refused food when they were experiencing severe head swelling. Infected snakes were also observed out in the open, exposed area of their enclosures twice as often as uninfected snakes.

    It's not known how the skin disease causes death in wild animals, but Lorch suspects it is multifactorial. "It could be due to predation or exposure if snakes are out and about when they shouldn't be. They could be getting secondary skin infections if bacteria get in." He notes that dehydration or starvation could also pose problems for infected snakes. There is also concern that environmental factors such as climate change could be compromising the ability of wild snakes to avoid, fight off, and recover from the infections.

    "We can't move forward with management of a disease in the wild if we don't know what's causing it," says Lorch. The identification of O. ophiodiicola will allow researchers and wildlife biologists to build a management plan, especially for at-risk snake populations.

  • 11/12/2015:  Web cam in Alaska park captures two mysterious bear deaths, Yahoo News
    (Link to the original article)


    JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - 'National Park Service officials are investigating the unexplained deaths of two brown bears in Alaska, one of them a cub, captured in real time by a video camera as thousands of bewildered nature enthusiasts were watching on the Internet.

    The camera, trained on the Brooks Falls area in the Katmai National Park, typically shows a variety of live-action bear activity, such as bears snoozing on a riverbank or snatching leaping salmon while perched above a waterfall.

    In late October, a brown bear cub could be seen by thousands of viewers walking in front of the camera before the animal teetered, then fell over and died, drawing a torrent of online comments from those tuned into the livestream carried on the park's website and second site called explore.org (http://bit.ly/1l4L7WY).

    The viewer reaction, ranging from expressions of grief to scientific observations, provided park officials with a running commentary on the sequence of events as they began to investigate what happened.

    Some time after park officials had removed the cub's carcass, viewers noticed another motionless bear - first visible as a dark blob and later determined to be an adult male that had mysteriously died.

    The park was due to host an online chat on Friday to discuss the deaths with viewers and answer questions, even though one ranger advised in an online post that key questions remained unanswered.

    "Don't worry about asking about the causes of death, as we still don't know," the ranger wrote.

    The bears' bodies have been sent for necropsy examination - the animal equivalent of an autopsy - to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, the park said, according to television station KDLG.

    (Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska; Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

  • 10/18/2015:  New fungal disease a threat to snakes in eastern states, including Georgia, Athens Banner-Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    Wildlife biologists are keeping a worried eye on what appears to be a new fungal disease affecting snakes.

    First identified in 2006, Snake Fungal Disease has since appeared in widely separated, isolated snake populations in 10 states as far north as New Hampshire, as far west as Minnesota and southward in Florida.

    It was first diagnosed in Georgia in 2008, in a captive black rat snake, but now, the disease has shown up in three wild snakes from south Georgia, including two from the same swamp in Bulloch County.

    Snakes with the fungal disease can show lesions, especially around the head, crusty scales, white, opaque eyes that arent associated with molting, and abnormal skin molting.

    Biologists hope the disease wont be like white-nose syndrome, another new fungal disease caused by an entirely separate fungus thats killed millions of bats since it was first identified in 2006, or like still another fungus that has devastated amphibian populations throughout the world.

    But scientists still have a lot more questions than answers, said Heather Fenton, chief diagnostician at the University of Georgias Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, or SCWDS.

    Its not really well understood, she said. Im not sure exactly why theyre getting this disease.

    Scientists have identified a particular species of fungus associated with the disease, but dont yet know if that fungus alone causes Snake Fungal Disease or if other disease agents play a role.

    And its not yet known if the disease is truly something new, or instead has been around but overlooked, said David Steen of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. Its possible the international trade in exotic snakes played a role - but theres no evidence of that, he said.

    A lot of people thought it must have been introduced (accidentally into the wild), but we really dont have any evidence, said Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center. Theres no clear pattern to where its been showing up, he said. Others wonder if climate change and altered weather patterns play a role, he said.

    The disease is associated with local population declines of rattlesnakes in some areas, but the overall population-level effect is unknown, Fenton said.

    In Vermont, a population of rare eastern massasauga rattlesnakes where the fungus was detected declined by 50 percent, however. The disease has struck snakes of at least eight species.

    Its a very troubling thing, but its still too early to tell, said Dirk Stevenson of the Orianne Society, a nonprofit group that works to conserve reptiles and amphibians and their habitats.

    Orianne Society volunteers found the three wild snakes in Georgia confirmed with Snake Fungal Disease a mud snake a volunteer found in 2014 and a brown water snake this summer, about a year after the first one in the same Bulloch County swamp. The volunteer found many other snakes that appeared healthy, Stevenson said. And in December 2014, volunteers found a rare Eastern indigo snake with the disease. It later died despite veterinary treatment.

    Another unknown is how the fungus has spread.

    The snake fungus is not a threat to human health, but its possible humans might be helping spread it.

    Just in case, anyone who comes into contact with wild snakes on purpose (like wildlife biologists and Orianne Society volunteers) should take basic biosecurity precautions such as washing clothing and disinfecting equipment and footwear between sites, McGuire said.

    The wildlife biologists hope people will be on the lookout for possibly infected snakes. But anyone who sees a snake exhibiting symptoms of Snake Fungal Disease should not try to capture it, said John Jensen, senior wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

    Instead, they should try to take a photo, if possible, and email it to McGuire at jessica.mcguire@dnr.ga.gov or to the Orianne Society at info@oriannesociety.org.

    Follow education reporter Lee Shearer at www.facebook.com/LeeShearerABH or https://twitter.com/LeeShearer.

  • 10/16/2015:  DEC reminds the public to avoid seasonal caves and mines to protect bat populations, Long Island News
    (Link to the original article)


    Albany, NY - October 15, 2015 - The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today urged outdoor adventurers to suspend exploration of cave and mine sites that serve as homes for bat hibernations. Human disturbances are harmful to the state's bat population since the arrival of the disease known as white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than 90 percent of bats at most hibernation sites in New York.

    "Research generated by DEC's Wildlife Diversity staff and our partners demonstrates that white-nose syndrome makes bats highly susceptible to disturbances," said DEC Acting Commissioner Marc Gerstman. "Even a single, seemingly quiet visit can kill bats that would otherwise survive the winter. If you see hibernating bats, assume you are doing harm and leave immediately."

    All posted notices restricting the use of caves and mines should be followed. If you encounter hibernating bats while underground you should leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible.

    Experts believe that when bats are disturbed during hibernation periods, it forces them to raise their body temperatures, which causes their fat reserves to be depleted. This affects their energy levels and places the bats in a comprised state, which can often lead to death.

    There are two species of bats currently protected under federal and state endangered species law. The Indiana bat, which is sparsely distributed across New York and beyond, is a federally threatened bat that was listed before white-nose syndrome began impacting bat populations.

    The northern long-eared bat is protected as a threatened species under both federal and NY State Endangered Species law. The current population for this formerly common bat is approximately one percent of its previous size, making it the species most severely affected by white-nose syndrome. Nonetheless, northern long-eared bats are still very widely distributed in New York. Their presence is documented in most of the 100 or so caves and mines that serve as bat hibernation sites in the State.

    Anyone entering a northern long-eared bat hibernation site from October 1 through April 30, the typical period of hibernation for bats, may be subject to prosecution.

    There is currently no treatment for addressing the impact of white-nose syndrome on bats but the DEC remains committed to finding a cure. Along with the New York State Department of Health, the DEC has teamed up with researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, and experts at a number of universities across the country to better understand the disease and focus on developing a treatment.

    It was this collaborative effort that helped identify that reducing disturbances at hibernation sites during the winter and reducing disturbances at roosting sites in the summer can help the surviving animals thrive.

    By cutting trees during the winter, direct impacts to roosting bats can be avoided. DEC also encourages homeowners with bats in their attics or barns to explore non-lethal means of removing them from the structure.

    For more information about white-nose syndrome and what you can do to help see: White-nose Syndrome website (link leaves DEC website.)

    Details about the protection of the northern long-eared bat can be found on: US Fish and Wildlife Services Endangered Species webpage (link leaves DEC website.).

  • 10/13/2015:  Mysterious disease threatens snake populations across the United States, Outbreak News Today
    (Link to the original article)


    A new disease of snakes has been quietly spreading across the U.S. The disease known as Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) is believed to be caused by a fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola and so far has been found in 15 states in the eastern half of the U.S. The disease has been discovered as far west as Minnesota, but biologists suspect that SFD is more widespread in the U.S. than is currently documented.

    A strange skin disease affecting snakes have been known to wildlife biologists since the mid-2000s, but over the past few years, the number of snakes with the disease appears to be increasing, says Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who recently developed a rapid molecular test for the fungus. The disease affects different species of snakes differently; however, snakes with SFD commonly have crusty-looking scales, scabs, nodules under the skin, or experience premature molting. Some may also have nodules in deeper tissues and swelling of the face.

    SFD affects multiple species of snakes including venomous copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes, in addition to some nonvenomous varieties such as milk snakes, corn snakes and garter snakes. The disease has come to the attention of wildlife conservationists because it affects timber rattlesnakes and the Eastern Massasauga, snakes that are listed as either threatened or endangered in several states. The disease was first documented in 2006 in New Hampshire, where there was a 50% decline in a population of timber rattlesnakes due to the disease.



    Some biologists see parallels between SFD and another emerging fungal disease, called White Nose Syndrome threatening bat populations throughout the eastern and midwestern U.S. While there are similarities, however, it should be pointed out that the two diseases are caused by different species of fungi and have different ecological niches in nature.

    Currently, we do not know the origins of this fungus, said Lorch. Many people think that it must have been introduced into the U.S.; however, we do not really have any evidence of that. This could just be a pathogen that has been overlooked until other factors like climate change exacerbated the disease and made it more visible, said Lorch.

    According to a study recently published in the journal Fungal Ecology, the SFD fungus likes to eat keratin, the stuff that makes up snake scales and a key component of human skin, fingernails, and hair. While this type of fungus rarely causes disease in healthy mammals, the risk to human health from the fungus is currently unknown.

  • 10/12/2015:  Testing wild ducks may shed light on next bird flu outbreak, Field & Stream
    (Link to the original article)


    With the start of the fall waterfowl migration, nervous poultry owners are keeping an eye on domestic chickens, ducks, and turkeys, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that another round of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenzaor bird flumight be just around the corner. Last spring, two deadly bird flu strainsH5N2 and H5N8wiped out nearly 50-million domestic birds across the country, and officials anticipated that the next outbreak will occur either this fall or early next spring. The virus is spread through secretions of migrating waterfowl, meaning that the virus could show up anywhere they land or fly over. Though all waterfowl could be carriers of bird flu, scientists have pinpointed wild ducks as the main culprits.

    Minnesota was one of the states hit hardest by the spring outbreak. According to a report by Minnesota Public Radio, more than 9 million birds on more than 100 poultry farms were affectedand killedby the virus, leading to a massive cleanup effort and the temporary shutdown of many area poultry farms and processing plants.

    Because of bird flus impact across the state, researchers at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began collecting samples from wild ducks shot by hunters last weekend in an attempt to track the spread of the virus. So far, nearly 500 samples have been taken, but biologists would like to sample at least 800 ducks in all. The states participation in monitoring waterfowl is part of a nationwide effort to curb the spread of bird flu to other large commercial poultry-producing states, according to The Chippewa Herald.

    We are kind of now edging into the beginning of the major migratory period. ... This is really the first opportunity we as a country will be able to get a significant number of samples, says Hon Ip, a microbiologist for the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where the samples are being tested. Since December, the virus has been traced to only 100 wild birds, with only two of those birds found in Minnesota.

    Lou Cornicelli, MDNRs wildlife research manager, says that hunters have been incredibly cooperative and that most of the samples have been collected in the seven Minnesota counties hit hardest by bird flu last spring.

    With much of the migratory season ahead, hunters should keep an eye out for sick birds and report any sightings of them to local authorities. This will help researchers monitoring the impact of bird flu by allowing them to track the spread of the virus.

  • 10/10/2015:  Researchers see spike in Kachemak Bay sea otter deaths, Alaska Dispatch News
    (Link to the original article)


    Kachemak Bay sea otters have been struggling this year, with more than 200 found sick or dead along the bays beaches.

    Similar cases in the past have been linked to streptococcus-related illnesses, the Alaska SeaLife Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a release.

    Now, in a multi-agency effort with the SeaLife Center, Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, experts are focusing their efforts on finding the cause.

    In the release, the agencies said the recent deaths and sickness could significantly affect the population.

    If you find a sea otter on the beach, the release said, call the SeaLife Centers 24-hour hotline at 1-888-774-SEAL. Otters are aquatic by nature and spend very little time on shore.

    If a sea otter is found on the beach, it is likely to be sick or injured and should not be approached, the release said.

  • 10/02/2015:  Ducks could provide early warning, Post Bulletin
    (Link to the original article)


    MINNEAPOLIS Wildlife managers in the upper Midwest expect the first results this week from tests that could provide an early warning on whether ducks flying south for the winter are carrying the deadly kind of bird flu that devastated the region's poultry earlier this year.

    Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staffers were in the field for the opening of waterfowl season, collecting about 500 samples from ducks shot by hunters. That put them more than halfway to their goal of 800, said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager.

    Those samples will be tested at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for highly pathogenic bird flu viruses such as H5N2. It's part of a nationwide surveillance plan, because officials fear that migrating waterfowl could carry avian influenza to major poultry-producing states in the South and East that escaped the disease earlier this year, as well as back to the Midwest.

    Scientists believe that wild birds, primarily ducks, are the main reservoir of the H5N2 and other bird flu viruses that began showing up in North America last November. Wild waterfowl don't normally get sick from them, but the viruses kill domestic poultry flocks quickly. Bird flu cost producers more than 48 million chickens and turkeys the majority in Iowa and Minnesota before it retreated with the onset of warm weather in June.

    Local and federal officials in other northern states where waterfowl seasons opened last weekend also collected samples from ducks, said Hon Ip, a microbiologist with the center. He said determining whether these ducks are carrying bird flu viruses is critical.

    "We are kind of now edging into the beginning of the major migratory period. ... This is really the first opportunity we as a country will be able to get a significant number of samples," Cornicelli said.

    The ducks will fill in data gaps, officials said, because H5 viruses have been found in only about 100 wild birds across the U.S. since December, and only two in Minnesota.

    Hunter cooperation was overwhelmingly positive, Cornicelli said. DNR field staffers went to hunting spots in seven Minnesota counties, including Kandiyohi and Stearns, where turkey producers were hit hard.

    Staffers will take swabs for a few more weeks until they reach their goal, Cornicelli said. Most ducks sampled last weekend were from the area or early migrants, he said, so samples taken later will include species that migrate later or start from farther north, giving researchers a broader mix.

  • 10/01/2015:  Tests on ducks could provide early warning on bird flu, Sun Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    MINNEAPOLIS Wildlife managers in the upper Midwest expect the first results next week from tests that could provide an early warning on whether ducks flying south for the winter are carrying the deadly kind of bird flu that devastated the region's poultry earlier this year.

    Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staffers were in the field last weekend for the opening of waterfowl season, collecting about 500 samples from ducks shot by hunters. That put them more than halfway to their goal of 800 said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager.

    Those samples will be tested at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, for highly pathogenic bird flu viruses such as H5N2. It's part of a nationwide surveillance plan, because officials fear that migrating waterfowl could carry avian influenza to major poultry-producing states in the South and East that escaped the disease earlier this year, as well as back to the Midwest.

    Scientists believe that wild birds, primarily ducks, are the main reservoir of the H5N2 and other bird flu viruses that began showing up in North America last November. Wild waterfowl don't normally get sick from them, but the viruses kill domestic poultry flocks quickly. Bird flu cost producers more than 48 million chickens and turkeys the majority in Iowa and Minnesota before it retreated with the onset of warm weather in June.

    Local and federal officials in other northern states where waterfowl seasons opened last weekend also collected samples from ducks, said Hon Ip, a microbiologist with the center. He said determining whether these ducks are carrying bird flu viruses is critical.

    "We are kind of now edging into the beginning of the major migratory period. ... This is really the first opportunity we as a country will be able to get a significant number of samples," Ip said.

    The ducks will fill in data gaps, officials said, because H5 viruses have been found in only about 100 wild birds across the U.S. since December, and only two in Minnesota.

    Hunter cooperation was overwhelmingly positive, Cornicelli said. DNR field staffers went to hunting spots in seven Minnesota counties, including Kandiyohi and Stearns, where turkey producers were hit hard.

    Staffers will take swabs for a few more weeks until they reach their goal, Cornicelli said. Most ducks sampled last weekend were from the area or early migrants, he said, so samples taken later will include species that migrate later or start from farther north, giving researchers a broader mix.

    In a commentary published Monday in Virology Journal, U.S. Geological Survey scientists said active surveillance of live birds appears to offer the best chance for determining the true distribution of H5 viruses. They proposed putting a higher priority on waterfowl near poultry farms as well as look more closely at rodents, insects and other species in those areas that could carry the virus into barns.

    Cornicelli said the article pointed out the need for stronger surveillance but didn't say how to pay for it.

    "This surveillance stuff is really expensive," he said.

    Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/2015/10/01/6443403/tests-on-ducks-could-provide-early.html#storylink=cpy

  • 09/30/2015:  Understanding the 2015 Wisconsin avian flu epidemic: government oversight, Wisconsin Public Radio
    (Link to the original article)


    An unprecedented avian influenza epidemic struck the poultry industry in the U.S. over the spring and early summer of 2015. It was concentrated in several Midwestern states, with Wisconsin seeing infections in several counties that are home to major turkey and chicken operations. Both federal and state government agencies worked in tandem with poultry farmers to halt and prevent further spread of the disease, resulting in the destruction of more than 1.9 million birds in the state. The epidemic was a serious agricultural challenge for the nation, driving up egg prices and spurring officials and poultry producers to strengthen biosecurity measures intended to limit the spread and impact of animal diseases.

    A standard protocol of biosecurity practices is recommended for poultry growing operations, from small backyard flocks to those that raise tens or hundreds of thousands of birds. These precautions are intended to prevent and limit the spread of the avian influenza virus. They are also targeted to address potential transmission of the disease between wild and domesticated birds, as well as its spread among poultry flocks.

    Multiple state and federal agencies take responsibility for tracking and coordinating the response to an outbreak of avian influenza among both wild birds and domestic poultry. At the national level, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) promotes biosecurity practices to prevent avian influenza from becoming an established, endemic disease among poultry and therefore safeguards this sector of the food industry.

    As part of its Disease Preparedness Response Plan, its work includes monitoring highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild waterfowl, providing resources for the poultry industry to establish effective biosecurity practices, and coordinating with state officials and the poultry industry when responding to the disease. The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) also monitors the disease, while the Public Health Division of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center also conducts tracking. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides information about antimicrobial disinfectants that are asserted by manufacturers to be effective with influenza viruses and are used by the poultry industry.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides recommendations for workers exposed to avian influenza through its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. These jobs include wildlife biologists and laboratory workers, employees in the poultry industry at meat farms, egg layer farms, hatcheries, processing plants, and live markets, as well as government and private workers involved in disease control and eradication. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor also provides guidelines to companies and workers on how to protect themselves from avian flu transmission, though these are largely geared towards virus subtypes that can infect humans (primarily H5N1).

    Similarly, other federal agencies have developed resources and protocols for addressing avian influenza varieties that humans can contract and spread.

    At the state level, the Division of Animal Health within the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is responsible for responding to outbreaks of avian influenza among domestic poultry. DATCP has broad authority to issue restrictions on the movement of poultry, including the delivery of new chicks from hatcheries. The state veterinarian, who works with the agency, has the authority to ban the transportation of poultry in counties where the disease has been identified, including markets, fairs and other public settings. Flocks that are part of or affiliated with the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), which was developed to monitor for mulltiple diseases found among domesticated birds, may also be restricted in movement. DATCP also oversees a mandatory premises registration system for domestic livestock (excepting those owners claiming a religious exemption), which covers poultry operations of all sizes (including even small backyard flocks), and is administered in a partnership through the non-profit Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. Perhaps most visibly, DATCP is responsible for overseeing the protocols to limit the spread of the virus by depopulating infected flocks and disposing of the birds' remains.

    At the university level, the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison works to test individual birds for the presence of the avian influenza virus. Test subjects include poultry that is prepared for movement or sale, and flocks being surveilled through NPIP requirements. It also provides a testing kit for owners of backyard flocks and game birds.

    Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors diseases found in wild birds, including avian influenza. The agency investigates the deaths of five or more birds in a single location, and collaborates with the NWHC on surveillance efforts. The DNR also worked with the USDA on its H5N1 surveillance programs to test more than 6,000 wild birds for exposure to avian influenza between 2006 and 2010; no viruses of that type were detected then.

  • 09/16/2015:  Massive seabird die-off hits Kodiak, KTOO Public Media
    (Link to the original article)


    Kodiak Island residents have been reporting a large number of common murres washing up dead on local beaches.

    The small black and white seabird usually establish breeding colonies on the Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutian Islands.

    Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge bird biologist Robin Corcoran said there are a few colonies on the island, but theyre less than 200 birds.

    Corcoran said the refuge first started receiving reports in April and May about a handful of murre die-offs.

    They were showing up in places where people dont normally see them. These are birds that are usually pretty far off shore, she said. We were getting all these reports of them being seen close to shore, foraging.

    Corcoran said more and more reports of dead birds started coming in August. She said some beaches have a large number of carcasses; there are over a hundred on the shores of Pasgashack.

    She said she doesnt know what could have caused the deaths, but it could be related to the birds inability to catch fish because theyre currently going through a flight feather molt stage.

    They spend about 70 days where they cant fly, and so the die-off seems to coincide with this flight feather molt where theyre flightless and it might be that they dont have the mobility to move to locations where they can find the forage fish, Corcoran said,

    Making things worse is that the birds are in a mostly unfamiliar territory. No one knows why theyre congregating on Kodiak Island. Corcoran hypothesizes that colony abandonment in other areas could be a factor.

    Corcoran said 2012 the last year they saw a major bird die-off, that time of both murres and grebes in January through March. They collected carcasses and sent them to the National Wildlife Health center in Madison, Wisconsin, where they ruled starvation as the cause of death.

    The carcasses theyve sent this year have been emaciated. Corcoran said the murres plight it could be connected to recent whale die-offs.

    Were looking into the possibility of harmful algal blooms. It could be related to the warm ocean temperatures having an impact on forage fish populations, she said.

    Corcoran said refuge survey data indicates that several other bird species numbers have declined, like the pigeon guillemot and the marbled murrelet. She said shes read about the die-off reaching Homer, as well as along the Alaskan Peninsula and into the Aleutians.

  • 08/12/2015:  TWS member creates risk framework for CWD in Montana, The Wildlife Society
    (Link to the original article)


    Wildlife managers in Montana now have a better focus on where a deadly prion disease that kills deer may infiltrate the state.

    The overall goal was to help Montana focus their surveillance, Robin Russell, member of The Wildlife Society, said about a new study in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Russell is a research statistician at the U.S. Geological Services National Wildlife Health Center and the lead author of the recent study.

    Although chronic wasting disease (CWD) hasnt yet been confirmed in Montana, it can be found in some neighboring states and Canadian provinces to the north. But the researchers wanted to know where the prion disease was most likely to appear in the state, if and when it does.

    Deer density makes it easier for the disease to spread, so researchers did surveys to determine where the most concentrated populations in Montana were located based on ecosystem type. They extrapolated this information to make larger estimates about deer populations across the state in different ecosystems.

    They then looked at confirmed cases of CWD in neighboring states and provinces to find where the largest danger of infiltration would come.

    The areas that presented the greatest danger for the state were in the north central, close to infected deer in Alberta, and in southeast Montana near Wyoming. Aside from being close to confirmed cases of CWD in these neighboring areas, these two zones also had large deer densities.

    Russell said that while it would be nearly impossible to stop infected deer from crossing over to Montana, identifying areas of greatest risk could allow state managers to better control the spread of CWD.

    In Montana their main surveillance is looking at carcasses of harvested deer, she said. Early detection of the disease is the best way to control CWD.

    Montana currently has bans on the import of venison from areas with CWD, and the state banned new captive cervid facilities around the turn of the century in an effort to better control it. But funds for CWD testing have declined since the study began, and Russell said this could make the control of the disease more difficult.

    Its possible that its in Montana already, and they just havent found it yet, she said.

  • 08/09/2015:  Some snake populations threatened with extinction by new fungus found in at least 9 states, U.S. News and World Report
    (Link to the original article)


    By WILSON RING, Associated Press

    NEW HAVEN, Vt. (AP) Hidden on hillsides in a remote part of western Vermont, a small number of venomous timber rattlesnakes slither among the rocks, but their isolation can't protect them from a mysterious fungus spreading across the eastern half of the country that threatens to wipe them out.

    In less than a decade, the fungus has been identified in at least nine Eastern states, and although it affects a number of species, it's especially threatening to rattlesnakes that live in small, isolated populations with little genetic diversity, such as those found in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.

    In Illinois the malady threatens the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which was a candidate for the federal endangered species list even before the fungus appeared.

    Biologists have compared its appearance to the fungus that causes white nose syndrome in bats, which since 2006 has killed millions of the creatures and continues to spread across North America.

    It's unclear, though, if snake fungal disease, "ophidiomyces ophiodiicola" was brought to the United States from elsewhere, as was white nose fungus, or if it has always been present in the environment and for some unknown reason is now infecting snakes, biologists say.

    "I think potentially this could overwhelm any conservation effort we could employ to try to protect this last remaining population," said Doug Blodgett, a biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife who has been studying the state's rattlesnake population for 15 years. "We don't have any control over it. It's just completely out there in the wild."

    Rattlesnakes were once found across much of the country, but habitat loss and efforts by fearful humans to wipe them out reduced their numbers, especially at the northern edges of their range.

    In New Hampshire, the disease helped halve the population of rattlesnakes now estimated at several dozen after it was first spotted in 2006, although it was only afterward that scientists linked the fungus to the decline, officials said.

    Vermont's population of timber rattlesnakes is down to two locations near Lake Champlain in the western part of the state with an estimated total population of several hundred.

    An Associated Press reporter was allowed to accompany wildlife officials to a rattlesnake habitat on condition the exact location not be revealed out of concern that too much attention could further threaten them. Blodgett led an hours-long search for some of the elusive creatures until he found a pair hiding in a rocky crevice, though it wasn't clear if they were infected. Later, a healthy single snake was found on the forest floor.

    The disease can cause crusty scabs and lesions, sometimes on the head.

    Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, said he's been getting reports of snake fungal disease from all over the eastern United States. Not every location is reporting that the disease is threatening snake populations.

    "It does seem to be a disease that has different effects in different areas," Lorch said.

    The fungus poses a greater risk to snakes that reproduce slowly, such as rattlesnakes, which can live up to 30 years, experts say.

    In Illinois every year the disease infects about 15 percent of the population of about 300 of massasauga rattlesnakes, most of which are in Clinton County, with a mortality rate of 80 to 90 percent, said Matt Allender, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois who started noticing the fungus in 2011. The mortality rate in infected timber rattlesnakes is estimated between 30 and 70 percent, he said.

    The fungus' impact on the massasauga is expected to play a part in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's determination on whether to list the snake as endangered, officials said.

  • 08/04/2015:  Bird death reports are up in Homer, food sources possibly to blame, Condor
    (Link to the original article)


    The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is receiving multiple reports indicating a significant increase in dead and dying birds found on beaches in the Homer area over the last two weeks. The reports are coming from beach walkers and local citizen scientists dedicated to surveying sea bird populations. Leslie Slater is the Gulf of Alaska Unit Biologist for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. She says the number of birds reported is in the dozens.

    So its hard to give a real exact number of the normal number. I would say on a given stretch of beach we normally dont find more than one within a couple of miles stretch.

    Slater says there are a lot of potential reasons for the increase in fatalities but the prevailing cause is likely tied to the birds food sources.

    What were seeing more precisely is that birds seem to be starving. Thats sort of the ultimate cause of their deaths but something might be happening before that. We might be having a PSP (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) outbreak or another situation called domoic acid where these biotoxins can build up through the food chain and ultimately cause the deaths of these birds.

    These deaths dont seem to be isolated to Homers beaches. There are reports of similar deaths down the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern edge of the Aleutians. Slater says its possible they could be related to dead whales found near Kodiak. To narrow down causes of death Slater says the refuge will send carcasses of Homers birds to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

    There they have a whole team of expert epidemiologists and other wildlife disease specialists who will be able to examine them and probably come up with a real good conclusion.

    Slater expects the center to receive the carcasses by the end of this week and believes there could be a reply within two weeks. She asks that people continue to call in dead birds with the species name and specific directions to the bodies location. She warns the public not to touch dead birds because they could be carrying disease.

  • 07/21/2015:  Key to bats' health to be researched in Minnesota, MPR News
    (Link to the original article)


    Scientists across Minnesota are working this summer to learn more about bats in hopes that they can help the species better prepare for a fungus called white-nose syndrome, which has decimated bat populations in other parts of the country.

    Researchers actually know very little about the lives of bats, state DNR endangered species coordinator Richard Baker told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer. But recent technological developments have allowed scientists to better track bats.

    "We now have transmitters that we can put on these bats, follow them around, and learn more about where they're going, what they're doing," Baker said.

    Scientists are focusing on studying young females so they can learn more about how they reproduce and the species' preferred habitats.

    White-nose syndrome has decimated bat populations in the northeastern United States since it first emerged in 2007. It's a fungus that leads bats to exhaust their energy supplies during winter hibernation, which can lead to their deaths.

    The National Wildlife Health Center estimates that bat populations declined by about 80 percent since white-nose syndrome emerged in the northeast. Baker said cases of white-nose syndrome were found in Minnesota in 2013. He said bats in other states started dying in large numbers about three or four years after the discovery of the fungus.

    "We don't yet see that in Minnesota," Baker said. "We have an opportunity to study this species and learn how a healthy population operates, what it needs, so when the disease gets here we can do what we can."

    The northern long-eared bat is a special focus of the $1 million study. It was listed as "threatened" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this spring. Baker said even people wary of the flying creatures benefit from them due to their role in insect control.

    "These bats that weigh only a few ounces, they eat their weight in insects every night," Baker said. "So if you don't like mosquitoes, maybe it's time to like bats."

  • 07/17/2015:  Research targets green sea turtles, The Garden Island
    (Link to the original article)


    LIHUE A local marine biologists documentation of green sea turtles with torn and tattered flippers prompted state and federal scientists to gather on the North Shore this week to take a closer look.

    The team examined about 30 turtles in near shore waters Tuesday and Wednesday, said Thierry Work, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife disease specialist. But none of them had the kind of alarming flipper damage seen in photos taken by Hanalei marine biologist Terry Lilly.

    The main objective was to rule in or out the possibility that its an infectious disease, Work said. We dont know what the cause of those flipper lesions are. Maybe its some kind of traumatic episode.

    Unable to find any turtles like the ones seen in Lillys photos, however, Work said the answer remains elusive.

    Ive seen things similar in captive turtles that are really crowded, Work said. They will start biting each other sometimes. But Ive never seen it in wild turtles.

    A blood sample and skin biopsy were taken from a turtle the scientists came across that had a small lesion on its rear flipper, Work said. The results of those tests will be publicly available in about two weeks.

    It was the only one we saw that had anything on any of the flippers, but it doesnt seem to be the same thing (Lillys) been seeing, Work said.

    Lilley said one turtle had damage to its shell and flippers.

    We all gently brought it to my research zodiac and did blood test and a biopsy. This info can help us understand what is going on with the health of the turtles and reef, he wrote. The crew took extreme care to make sure the turtle had the least amount of stress as possible and we let it go quickly after its ordeal. I think this poor turtle thought it had been abducted by some creatures from Mars but she came to us for a purpose and we may be able to help her by doing these important lab studies.

    Also involved in the two-day research trip were George Balazs, a zoologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations turtle research program, and Don Heacock, Kauai District fisheries biologist for Department of Land and Natural Resources.

    It hasnt been determined whether the group will return to Kauais North Shore waters for more testing.

    The problem is its one of those things where you have to be in the right place at the right time, Work said. We did see a bunch of turtles and the ones we saw looked good. No tumors. They looked healthy.

  • 07/17/2015:  Wind energy industry spun into bat saving effort, The Daily Reporter
    (Link to the original article)


    The Iowa wind energy industry faces a bizarre problem. It is killing bats, and the demise sometimes comes in a gruesome way.

    Wind turbine blades catch the little creatures in a vortex wake that ruptures their lungs, causing them to drown in their blood, experts have found. Many also die colliding with the turbines.

    Which is more deadly? The scientific consensus on that still is unsettled.

    Whatever the reason, the Iowa wind industry, an increasingly important segment of the economy, will have to deal with the deaths and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to stop the slaughter of one species -- the northern long-eared bat.

    This is true even though the federal service acknowledges that wind turbines are not primary culprits in the demise of the northern long-eared bat because rules for protecting endangered species do not focus on one particular cause of death.

    A schedule the service is working with has it making final decisions on the northern long-eared bat by year's end.

    Iowans have a big stake economically in all of this -- not just for a robust wind industry but also for the survival of bats. Bats are good for medical research. They gorge on mosquitoes and save agriculture millions of dollars in insect crop damage and repellant expenses.

    Experts' death-toll estimates range from four to 18 bats per turbine annually, which equals 14,000 to 62,000 killings in Iowa.

    WHITE-NOSE SYNDROME MORE DEADLY THAN TURBINES

    But the number of deaths by turbine pale in comparison to a national slaughter from a fast-spreading disease called white-nose syndrome, a malady caused by a white fungus that shows up on the muzzle, ears and wings of bats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it has massacred millions nationwide.

    Although the service hasn't found white-nose syndrome in Iowa yet, its precursor -- the fungus -- has arrived. It was discovered in a hibernaculum in the winter of 2011-12.

    The disease's first U.S. appearance was in New York in 2006.

    Since then, the white-nose syndrome swept through the northeast, slashing the bat population by 80 percent. It plunged through the southeast before racing westward at what the National Wildlife Health Center calls an alarming rate. The fungus turned up in Iowa and Minnesota in 2011-12, and then the disease struck Wisconsin last year. Just a few weeks ago, the fungus turned up in Oklahoma for the first time, achieving its westernmost reach to date.

    "It is unlikely that species of bats affected by white-nose syndrome will recover quickly, because most are long-lived and have just a single pup per year," the U.S. Geological Service reports on its web site.

    FEDS: NORTHERN LONG-EARED BAT IS A THREATENED SPECIES

    The northern long-eared bat, a 3 1/2-inch critter slung between wings spanning 11 inches -- got hit so hard by the disease the wildlife service, effective May 4, listed it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 .

    Initially, the service believed it faced extinction and listed it at the highest warning level -- endangered -- in October 2013 making it only the second bat visitor to Iowa to gain protection since the Indiana bat got protection status in 1967. But strong opposition to the 2013 endangerment listing from the wind, timber, oil and gas industries ensued, prompting the service to reduce the danger level to "threatened" earlier this year.

    The lower danger level still means the northern long-eared bat's future is bleak, that it is likely to reach the endangered point in the foreseeable future if the killing continues at the current pace. But it gives the wildlife service more flexibility to relax prohibitions against killing bats.

    WIND INDUSTRY SEEKS EXEMPTION

    In establishing temporary rules for an endangerment listing, the service exempted some activities, such as forest management and utility right-of-way clearance, but not wind power generation. It accepted public suggestions for changes in its rules through Wednesday, July 1.

    While federal protection might be good news for bats that may not be the case for wind-power in Iowa and elsewhere, industry officials argue.

    The industry is seeking relief from the rule, arguing that the cost impact would be out of proportion to the damage it does to long-eared bats in comparison to the white-nose syndrome.

    "The risk posed to the species by wind energy is de minimus," the American Wind Energy Association wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service on March 13.

    Closer to home, Mike Prior, head of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, told IowaWatch: "We want to take care of our avian friends and our bats. While we want to evolve wind energy in a way not to hurt wildlife, bat deaths are not a concern and will not impact wind energy."

    RULE COST ESTIMATE IN MILLIONS

    The decision to list the bat species as endangered, which does not exempt turbines from mitigation, could force wind operators in affected areas nationwide to spend about $610 million over the next 30 years, the American Wind Association complained, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That cost would cover developing and maintaining a habitat conservation plan as required by the wildlife service to qualify for a permit called an "incidental taking permit," allowing incidental killing or injuring of bats.

    The federal wildlife service also is moving to protect the bats' habitats, which are sometimes damaged during construction of wind farms. In June, it announced July meetings in Ames and seven other Midwestern states to gather the public's ideas for drafting an environmental impact statement for the habitat conservation plan.

    The states are working with the federal service on a regional habitat conservation plan for the northern long-eared bat, two other bats and several birds. The other states are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

    The environmental impact statement will analyze the possible environmental effects of issuing permits for the incidental killing of bats and other covered animals and of implementing the habitat conservation plan.

    THREATENED BAT COVERS 37 STATES

    The wildlife service says the fungus causing white-nose syndrome affects 60 percent of the northern long-eared bat's total geographic range, and it is spreading.

    It ranges across 37 states, including Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Northern long-eared bats have been captured in 13 of Iowa's 99 counties, in central and southeastern Iowa since the 1970s, with eight more in west central and one in southwestern Iowa in 2011

    The fungus -- Pseudogymnoascus destructans, often written as Pd -- has affected seven North American bat species and spread into 26 states, including Iowa and seven other Midwestern states, according to the Federal Register.

    In the Midwest, the disease itself has been documented in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. Although the fungus has been found on bats in Iowa, Oklahoma and Minnesota, experts have not yet found a bat in the three states that have been infected. Nevertheless, Iowa, Minnesota and now Oklahoma would have to abide by the prohibition against killing them, Georgia Parham, spokesperson for the wildlife service told IowaWatch.

    Much of the wind industry's argument for exemption from the rule for an endangered species listing is based on its lack of relative culpability.

    John Anderson, a senior director for the American Wind Energy Association, said it is neither fair nor effective for the wildlife service to put "a conservation burden on activities that are not having a significant effect," Midwestern Energy News, a non-profit, energy news website, reported recently. "The wind industry is one of them," he said.

    WHO IS TO BLAME NOT A FACTOR

    Whether wind turbines or the fungus are the worst bat killer is not a factor the Endangered Species Act lists for determining whether protections for a bat species should kick in.

    The act requires the government to list a species for protection if its existence has become threatened or endangered by any one of five factors: disease or predation, man-made or natural activities, harm to its habitat or range, overuse or because existing protective rules are inadequate. Once a species is listed, the act prohibits people or corporations, including those who are not the primary culprit, from killing or harming them.

    While the wildlife service acknowledges that wind turbines aren't primary culprits in northern long-eared bat deaths, it contends that death by turbines already are "significant" and getting worse. Various studies through 2011 have generated estimates ranging 653,000 to more than 1.4 million as of that year with another 196,000 to 396,000 estimated in 2012.

    TURBINE CULPABILITY MINOR NOW, BUT GROWING

    "My personal estimate is that six to 18 bats are killed each year per wind turbine," said Bruce Ehresman, biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Diversity Program.

    These numbers fluctuate within each region of the state, Russell Benedict, a professor of biology at Central College in Pella, Iowa, said. "I think Ehresman's estimates are dead on, with the caveat that the number at any one turbine is going to depend somewhat on the surrounding habitat," he said.

    The American Wind Energy Association says Iowa has 3,447 wind turbines. If a minimum of four bats are killed per turbine, this results in 13,788 bat deaths per year. Using Ehresman's maximum estimate, the toll rises to 62,046.

    Whatever the toll is now, it is likely to grow as the wind industry continues expanding, particularly in Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas and New York, which are among the top 10 wind energy states. Eventually wind energy is expected to provide 20 percent of the nation's energy needs, the wildlife service said.

    HOW TO SAVE BATS

    In seeking exemption from the wildlife service's threatened species rule, the American Wind Energy Association has proposed adjusting turbine operations to reduce bat deaths.

    Based on the theory that bats don't get out in high winds, the association says facilities could hold off letting the turbine blades turn until the wind reaches a certain speed, known as "cut-in speed," during migration periods and between certain times of the day.

    Benedict, the Central College biology professor, also suggested coordinating turbine operations with wind speed.

    "Instead of turning wind turbines on when winds reach 7mph, wind turbine companies could wait to turn them on when winds reach 9 mph," he said.

    He estimated that would cut bat mortality by about 50 percent, but only hurt energy production by 3 percent. "If we are more careful about when we use wind turbines, we won't have that big of an impact on energy production, but we can dramatically reduce bat mortalities," Benedict said.

    The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has established a set of interim guidelines to assist wind energy developers and producers to do a better job of designing and operating wind farms. The guidelines consist of recommendations on things that ought to be considered when developing wind energy farms, such as avoiding placing turbines near migratory patterns of endangered species.

    In the meantime, scientists keep trying to figure out ways to stop the killings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service soon will give $250,000 in grants to research bat treatments' safety, effectiveness and ways to mitigate the disease's impact. It already has spent $20 million searching for cures and control of white-nose syndrome.

  • 07/15/2015:  Plague vaccine could bring black footed ferrets back to Meeteetse, Wyoming Public Radio
    (Link to the original article)


    A plague vaccine might help bring one of the most endangered mammals in North America back to Northwest Wyoming where they were discovered. Black Footed Ferrets may be restored to the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, because their food, prairie dogs, are coming back.

    An angry black footed ferret barks as she tries to get back into the darkened part of her cage. She was brought to Meeteetse for the media and Game and Fish Commissioners to see one of the most endangered mammals in North America. They still number only in the hundreds, after more than four thousand born in captive breeding programs were returned to the wild.

    Why arent black footed ferrets surviving? Partly because their only food source, prairie dogs, are being wiped out by the plague.

    About four years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started testing a new plague vaccine in the lab. Dr. Tonie Rockie developed it.

    Rockie said, We needed to find a way to distribute large numbers of vaccine and oral baits is the way to go. So we just had some precedent already from the oral rabies vaccine.

    Three years ago, Wyoming Game and Fish biologists started testing it in one place in Wyoming: the Pitchfork Ranch, near Meeteetsealmost 30 years after the plague killed most of the prairie dogs here, and forced the evacuation of the worlds last wild colony of black footed ferrets.

    Scientists believed the ferrets were extinct by 1979Then, a Meeteetse ranchers dog brought a dead one to his home in 1981. The rancher, John Hogg, has passed away. But in 2007, he recalled the incident

    Hog said, We took it down to a taxidermist here in town here, and he said, Oh my God, you got a ferret, and I said what the hells that?

    Dennie Hammer was one of two federal biologists who discovered a live ferret on the Pitchfork Ranch next to Hawgs ranch in October, 1981.

    He recalled, That was one of the happiest days of my life.

    The science world was stunned when about 122 ferrets were found on the Pitchfork. But, then disease started killing the ferrets, and their food source, the prairie dogs. Hammer says it was one of the worst days in his life..

    Hammer said, When Sylvatic plague and canine distemper in the same prairie dog colony where we found the black footed ferret.

    There were only 18 ferrets left, when they had to be taken off the land, and put in breeding facilities.

    Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released ferrets in several states. About thirty ferrets were counted in Wyomings Shirley Basin last year. An estimated one to three hundred live in the wild.

    Wyoming wants to bring more ferrets back to the state, so the Game and Fish Department has asked the Service for a 10J rule designation. That would allow ferrets, and their food, white tailed prairie dogs, to be established on private lands.with protection for the landowners if an animal is accidentally killed.

    Dr. Lenox Baker owns the Pitchfork Ranch. He bought it in 1999, partly because the last ferrets were found here.

    Baker admitted, It was one of the attractive things about it. Certainly was.

    He wants them back.

    He explained, Were very much interested in trying to get the ferret back. And thats why were doing the study with the prairie dogs. If the prairie dog population increases here and we get rid of the plague, then one of the plans is to have the ferret reintroduced here.

    Because of the promising results of the vaccine developed by Dr. Rockie, he may get his wish.

    For three years, Wyoming Game and Fish biologists have been putting out thousands of small peanut butter flavored vaccine laced chewies in the prairie dog colonies. Then they trap the wild rodents, take hair and blood samples, tag them, and count them.

    Biologist Jess Boulerice says the colony seems to be doubling in size each year:

    He said, Three years Ive been here it has certainly grown. We can see it grow, you walk out and just see more prairie dogs.

    Prairie dogs are hated by some ranchers, because they say they damage the rangeland. But Pitchfork Ranch owner Lenox Baker says a healthy black footed ferret population would control the population.

    If the study confirms the vaccine works, and if the 10j rule is enacted in Wyoming, biologists say prairie dogs will thrive on this ranch, and the black footed ferret may once again have a stable population at the Pitchfork.

  • 07/12/2015:  Plague vaccine may help ferrets bounce back from the brink, Yellowstone Gate
    (Link to the original article)


    For a couple of hours last week, about three dozen people stood under ominous storm clouds, wandering across a windswept meadow near Meeteetse, Wyo., hoping to catch a glimpse of prairie dogs eating peanut butter.

    It wasnt just peanut butter the wild rodents were ingesting. In fact, the tasty treat was merely the irresistible flavor used in a bait laced with an oral vaccine being tested as a way to control plague among limited populations of wild animals.

    And since the gathering of reporters, wildlife officials and researchers was at the Pitchfork Ranch, there was also plenty of discussion about the endangered black-footed ferret.

    It was at the Pitchfork that a colony of about 120 black-footed ferretsthe last in the worldwas discovered in 1981, long after the animal was thought extinct.

    Despite a concerted management effort aimed at saving the species, sylvatic plague and canine distemper swept through the Pitchfork ferrets. By 1986, there were less than 20 black-footed ferrets left alive, with only seven of those capable of breeding.

    Plague infects prairie dogs, and can wipe out more than 90 percent of a colony. Black-footed ferrets feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs, and are highly susceptible to plague themselves.

    Since 1987, wildlife managers have carried out long-running captive breeding programs that allow for approximately 200 black-footed ferrets to be released each year at 24 reintroduciton sites. Despite the years of work, only a few hundred black-footed ferrets now survive in the wild. Sylvatic plague is present in at least two-thirds of the reintroduction sites.

    Which is why Tonie Rockes lab smells like peanut butter.

    For the past 15 years, Rocke and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have been working to develop a plague vaccine for prairie dogs, which could also benefit ferrets and other wildlife. Field testing is ongoing at 29 prairie dog sites across the country, including the Pitchfork Ranch, which Rocke visited for the first time last week.

    Plague is by far the biggest threat to black-footed ferrets, said Rocke, who works in Madison, Wis. at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

    Ferrets can be infected with plague by eating diseased prairie dogs, or by being bitten by fleas carried by prairie dogs.

    In Rockes lab, the prairie dog vaccine has logged a success rate of 90 percent or higher. After three years of a planned four-year field test, results so far look promising, Rocke said.

    But getting to this point hasnt been easy.

    We have to make all the baits by hand, and I usually have one person making the vaccine and one person making the baits, Rocke said.

    She tested a range of flavors, put peanut butter proved to be the prairie dogs favorite. Rocke has now enlisted volunteers to help make the dice-sized bait cubes that are scattered across prairie dog habitat.

    Another phase of trials will be needed to figure out how to best distribute the bait, which must be manufactured by automation on a much larger scale if it is to be effective beyond the 40-acre test sites where it is used now.

    Impossible to eradicate

    It is virtually impossible to eradicate plague from wildlife populations, Rocke said. But government agencies could use the vaccine or variations of it to help protect prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and other select species in specific areas.

    Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and is transmitted by biting fleas that are common among many species of rodents. Known as sylvatic plague among wildlife, the disease also can infect humans, where it manifests in one of three varieties: the blood-borne septicemic plague; the respiratory infection pneumonic plague; or the lymphatic infection bubonic plaguealso known as black deathwhich killed an estimated 75 million Europeans or more over the course of a single decade in the 1300s.

    Cases of plague among humans in the U.S. are exceptionally rare, and can be effectively treated with antibiotics if caught early. Consequently, there is little financial incentive to create a human plague vaccine, although the U.S. Army has developed one that has undergone clinical trials.

    Rockes vaccine is based in part on earlier work done by the private sector on a plague vaccine for domestic cats, which are highly susceptible to the disease (dogs are relatively resistant). But the company doing that work realized there was insufficient commercial demand, Rocke said, leaving government funding as the only development option.

    The biggest obstacle to developing the vaccine has been clearing the complex regulatory hurdles to allow for testing outside the laboratory, Rocke said. The vaccine has proven exceptionally safe across a wide range of wildlife, as well as domestic livestock.

    The vaccine uses a modified raccoon poxvirus that produces two proteins of Yersinia pestis, but which does not contain the entire plague bacteria. Ingesting it causes an immune response that produces antibodies that help defend against plague.

    The complex and expensive process of creating and disseminating an oral vaccine using millions of bait cubes scattered across countless thousands of acres may seem like altogether too much trouble just to help prairie dogs, or even the endangered black-footed ferrets.

    But wildlife managers say the effort is necessary, and can have wide-reaching effects that go far beyond the initial target areas.

    A keystone species

    Some say prairie dogs are a keystone species, said Jesse Boulerice, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist leading the vaccine trial near Meeteetse.

    Loss of habitat and plague have removed prairie dogs from an estimated 97 percent of their historic range, Boulerice said. That can mean trouble for other animals that have typically enjoyed symbiotic relationships with prairie dogs, either relying on their burrows, preying on them or reaping the benefits of their proximity. That includes direct beneficiaries like mountain plovers, swift fox and burrowing owls, as well as a wide range of other species that seem to do better with prairie dogs around, including bison, bald eagles and pronghorn.

    Ranchers have typically seen prairie dogs as pests because they eat grass and dig holes which can injure cattle. But bison have long coexisted with prairie dogs, and ranchers seem to be growing a bit more tolerant of them, Boulerice said.

    This is not just about prairie dogs or ferrets, he said. More and more landowners want to see their land managed on a scale thats beneficial for wildlife.

    For Lenox Baker, owner of the Pitchfork Ranch, that means moving his cows to different parts of the property, for instance, when lupine wildflowers are present, as they can be toxic to cattle.

    We also want the black-footed ferrets back here, Baker said. They were here before, and they were a part of this landscape, so they should be here now.

    Baker may have a chance to be among the first private landowners to host a colony of reintroduced black-footed ferrets, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves a rule that would make Wyoming a special management area for the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets under the Endangered Species Act.

    The Wyoming Game and Fish Department supports the proposal, which would ease the regulatory constraints of the Endangered Species Act, allowing landowners to voluntarily host reintroduced ferrets. The rule would also protect landowners and neighbors against federal enforcement if any ferrets are accidentally killed on their lands.

    Ferrets tend to thrive when they have a sufficient prairie dog prey base that is free of plague, said Kimberly Fraser, with the USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center.

    They are fierce and prodigious hunters, and routinely take down prairie dogs that are twice their weight.

    They may look cute, but theyll rip your face off, Fraser said.

    Each ferret will consume an entire prairie dog approximately every three days, meaning that a self-sustaining ferret population will require a prairie dog town that stretches across more than 1,000 acres.

    But even when the right habitat can be found, a plague outbreak can spell disaster for both prairie dogs and ferrets within just a few months. Which is why Fraser is bullish on Rockes vaccine.

    Rocke figures it will take about five years to develop an operational plan for large-scale use of the vaccine in the wild, assuming the current field trials prove successful. Variations of the vaccine could help with a wide range of mammals that are susceptible to plague.

    But more importantly, the method used to develop the plague vaccine is likely to prove useful in tackling a wide range of infectious diseases that are killing wildlife across the country, she said.

    That includes conditions like white-nose syndrome, a disease carried by a fungus that infects hibernating bats, killing up to 80 percent of affected populations in specific regions across the U.S.

    Rocke has spent her entire career working to prevent or reduce wildlife diseases, and said the issue is becoming increasingly more urgent.

    Changes in climate and habitat are part of the reason were seeing emergent diseases in wildlife, she said, and those trends are only likely to worsen.

    Its all about protecting these endangered and threatened species, Rocke said. If we dont figure out how to manage these diseases, were going to lose our wildlife.

  • 07/09/2015:  Deadly invasive snail moving north, The Mining Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Some invasive snails carrying parasites that are deadly to waterfowl are spreading to Wisconsin's cold water streams, according to state wildlife officials.

    Faucet snails have been discovered in a small stream in northern Wisconsin's Langlade County near the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said. The agency collected routine samples from Elton Creek in December and identified the snails in May. One of the snails harbored the parasite that primarily kills coots and scaup, also known as bluebills.

    About 120,000 birds have died since 2002 in the upper Mississippi region because of the parasites, the National Wildlife Health Center said.

    Fishing gear or waders likely were responsible for introducing the invasive species to the creek, "although boats are the number one means for invasive species to move around," said Bob Wakeman, an aquatic invasive species coordinator with the DNR.

    Elton Creek is the state's first cold water stream in which the snails have been identified. In 2009, faucet snails were found in Shawano Lake, about 35 miles away from the creek. The snails first arrived in the Great Lakes in the 1870s and have spread mainly in larger rivers in Wisconsin, including the Mississippi and Wolf.

    The DNR plans to sample additional sites later this month to access the range of the snails.

    Efforts by the department to educate boaters about how they can prevent the spread of invasive species have been effective, said Tim Campbell, an aquatic invasive species specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension and Wisconsin Sea Grant.

    About 96 percent of boaters were aware of laws regarding the spread of invasive species and at least 93 percent had properly inspected or cleaned boats, surveys from the 2013 season show.

  • 07/08/2015:  Researchers test plague vaccine near Meeteetse, Casper Star Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    After two decades of work, researchers believe they may have found a vaccine for the plague, and theyre testing it in Wyoming.

    The disease is the same one that caused the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 1300s, and killed dozens in Madagascar in 2014. But the vaccine is for another mammal: prairie dogs.

    While the plague rarely kills humans in the U.S. anymore, nearly all infected prairie dogs perish, said Tonie Rocke, a research scientist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. An oral vaccine could stem the tide of those deaths.

    But the effort isnt just for prairie dogs. Rocke and biologists across the West hope the end result will help a different suite of creatures, beginning with black-footed ferrets.

    The USGS, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other regional wildlife agencies are beginning the third year of a four-year study in seven states across the west to test the vaccine. If it works, state wildlife officials say they will be one step closer to fully re-establishing black-footed ferrets in their native range.

    ***

    For the black-footed ferret, plague was a one-two punch.

    The ferrets rely almost entirely on prairie dog colonies for food and shelter. They live in prairie dog burrows, and eat the animals, said Zack Walker, nongame supervisor for Game and Fish.

    Ferrets themselves are also susceptible to the disease, further dwindling their numbers.

    The plague came to the U.S. in the early 1900s on flea-infested ships near San Francisco, Rocke said. In about 50 years, it spread about halfway across the country.

    We are now seeing it spread again, Rocke said. Its been moving in the last 10 years.

    A combination of the disease, canine distemper and prairie dog extermination took such a toll, in fact, that black-footed ferrets were considered extinct until the early 1980s, when a colony was discovered on the Pitchfork Ranch outside of Meeteetse.

    But since their rediscovery, the researchers have been unable to fully re-establish ferret populations.

    Black-footed ferrets need at least 1,500 acres of black-tailed prairie dog colony or 3,000 acres of white-tailed colony to be reintroduced, Walker said. Wyoming successfully placed some black-footed ferrets in Shirley Basin in the early 1990s, but hasnt made any other releases. The ferrets have also been reintroduced into other western states including Colorado, Arizona and South Dakota.

    Part of the reason for the slow reintroduction is lack of prey. Plague can wipe out 95 to 97 percent of a prairie dog colony within a few months, taking with it ferret food and shelter, Rocke said. While black-footed ferrets can be immunized against the disease by hand, they cant survive without food.

    It would be a pretty big thing if this vaccine worked, Walker said. If we could maintain ferrets across a wide area, even if we had spots that went down, we would have a buffer. We have so few now, we cant keep them around across their range.

    ***

    Biologists have been managing plague by spreading pesticides meant to kill the fleas that host the bacteria. It works, but is only applied after plague has been detected, which is often too late, Rocke said.

    The vaccine she and her team developed in their lab in Madison, Wisconsin, comes hidden in a small, red square that tastes like peanut butter. It is a virus that has been changed to induce plague antibodies in the recipient, ultimately immunizing the animal.

    We will not probably eradicate plague, Rocke said. This would be applied in very select locations where we want to manage the disease for ferrets or other reasons.

    The squares red color works as a biomarker in the animal, allowing researchers to easily test a captured prairie dog to see if it consumed the vaccine.

    The drug isnt meant for people, but by reducing the disease in prairie dogs, it could help cut down the rare times where humans are infected with plague.

    Ranchers are also becoming more understanding about the critical role prairie dogs play in the lives of black-footed ferrets and other carnivores.

    We would like to have black-footed ferrets here, said Lenox Baker, owner of the Pitchfork Ranch in Meeteetse where the ferrets were originally found.

    His land has plenty of space for prairie dogs, cattle, elk and other animals, he said. With any luck, he hopes to have the endangered animal back where they were found within a few years.

    Restoring black-footed ferrets is a great thing to do, he said. You get animals back in their native habitat.

  • 07/08/2015:  DNR says invasive snails spreading in Wisconsin, found in northern cold water stream, Star Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    MADISON, Wis. Some invasive snails carrying parasites that are deadly to waterfowl are spreading to Wisconsin's cold water streams, according to state wildlife officials.

    Faucet snails have been discovered in a small stream in northern Wisconsin's Langlade County near the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the state Department of Natural Resources said. The agency collected routine samples from Elton Creek in December and identified the snails in May. One of the snails harbored the parasite that primarily kills coots and scaup, also known as bluebills.

    About 120,000 birds have died since 2002 in the Upper Mississippi region because of the parasites, the National Wildlife Health Center said.

    Fishing gear or waders likely were responsible for introducing the invasive species to the creek, "although boats are the number one means for invasive species to move around," said Bob Wakeman, an aquatic invasive species coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources.

    Elton Creek is the state's first cold water stream in which the snails have been identified. In 2009, faucet snails were found in Shawano Lake, about 35 miles away from the creek. The snails first arrived in the Great Lakes in the 1870s and have spread mainly in larger rivers in Wisconsin, including the Mississippi and Wolf, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1NSf6iL ) reported.

    The agency plans to sample additional sites later this month to access the range of the snails.

    Efforts by the Department of Natural Resources to educate boaters about how they can prevent the spread of invasive species have been effective, said Tim Campbell, an aquatic invasive species specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension and Wisconsin Sea Grant.

    About 96 percent of boaters were aware of laws regarding the spread of invasive species and at least 93 percent had properly inspected or cleaned boats, surveys from the 2013 season show.

  • 07/07/2015:  As many as 12 ducks a day are dying in Utah's Sugar House Park, The Salt Lake Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    The Sugar House Park pond was the picture of tranquility on Tuesday, with ducks and geese wading in and out. But the calm was deceptive, for a disease known as avian botulism is killing birds that live in the water.

    "It's not harmful to humans, but people are encouraged to stay away from the dead animals," said Callie Birdsall, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. "Don't handle the birds and don't let children play with the birds."

    She said there is no public-health threat, and there has been no discussion of closing the park. "The only way you can get sick is if you ate the bird."

    Birdsall had no estimates on the number of bird deaths, but said in recent days the park has seen from one to a dozen per day.

    Avian botulism is a paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, and is common nationwide, according to the National Wildlife Health Center. Decomposing vegetation and organisms combine with warm temperatures to cultivate the bacteria and trigger the production of toxin, which birds ingest from water or from eating maggots or flies.

    DaLyn Marthaler, executive director for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden, said members of the public have brought her eight sick ducks from the park.

    "One duck passed away and the seven others are in stable conditions," Marthaler said. "One duck is still very weak."

    Marthaler said the ducks are being treated with an activated kaolin charcoal to relieve their stomachs of the toxins.

    Park crews were on the water Tuesday morning in boats cleaning the pond, as they do three or four times a week, Birdsall said.

    The Sugar House Park Authority is looking into long-term plans to redesign the pond in a way that keeps people away from the birds, which would require funding and two to five years of planning.

  • 06/24/2015:  As many as 12 ducks a day are dying in Utah's Sugar House Park, The Salt Lake Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    The Sugar House Park pond was the picture of tranquility on Tuesday, with ducks and geese wading in and out. But the calm was deceptive, for a disease known as avian botulism is killing birds that live in the water.

    "It's not harmful to humans, but people are encouraged to stay away from the dead animals," said Callie Birdsall, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. "Don't handle the birds and don't let children play with the birds."

    She said there is no public-health threat, and there has been no discussion of closing the park. "The only way you can get sick is if you ate the bird."

    Birdsall had no estimates on the number of bird deaths, but said in recent days the park has seen from one to a dozen per day.

    Avian botulism is a paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, and is common nationwide, according to the National Wildlife Health Center. Decomposing vegetation and organisms combine with warm temperatures to cultivate the bacteria and trigger the production of toxin, which birds ingest from water or from eating maggots or flies.

    DaLyn Marthaler, executive director for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden, said members of the public have brought her eight sick ducks from the park.

    "One duck passed away and the seven others are in stable conditions," Marthaler said. "One duck is still very weak."

    Marthaler said the ducks are being treated with an activated kaolin charcoal to relieve their stomachs of the toxins.

    Park crews were on the water Tuesday morning in boats cleaning the pond, as they do three or four times a week, Birdsall said.

    The Sugar House Park Authority is looking into long-term plans to redesign the pond in a way that keeps people away from the birds, which would require funding and two to five years of planning.

  • 06/24/2015:  Dead grebes found in Lake Havasu test negative for disease, Havasunews
    (Link to the original article)


    Birds found dead on Lake Havasu in April tested negative for avian bird flu and west Nile virus or other environmental diseases, Arizona Game and Fish wildlife biologist Carrington Knox said Tuesday.

    Specimens from the around 30 dead eared grebes found near Cattail Cove State Park on April 28 were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for the special testing.

    Knox said initial observation of the grebes showed severe blunt trauma and said on Tuesday that appeared to be the cause of death. She said there was no reason to think they were harmed by the blue-green algae toxin microcystin but that it hadnt been specifically tested for.

    They died from blunt force trauma and thats about all we can say, Knox said.

  • 06/23/2015:  Azerbaijan bans poultry meat import from Iran, Azernews
    (Link to the original article)


    Azerbaijan has suspended the import of poultry meat and products from Iran since June 22.

    Yolchu Khanveli, the representative of the State Veterinary Service at the Azerbaijan Agriculture Ministry, said Azerbaijan banned import of poultry and eggs from the Iranian province of Mazandaran, citing immediate public health concerns.

    Earlier on June 19, a case of avian influenza virus had been reported in a flock of 25 birds in Amol village in the province of Mazandaran, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

    Seven birds from the flock died and the rest were culled to prevent the further spread of the virus.

    The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus is highly contagious among birds, and can be deadly, especially for domestic poultry. Since December 2003, the Asian HPAI H5N1 virus resulted in devastatingly high rate of mortality for poultry and wild birds in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.

    In order to prevent the spread of these viruses in the country, Azerbaijan temporarily halted the import of poultry into the country, Khanveli noted.

    The situation has been under control as of June 22, and there have been no recorded cases of the virus thus far. To maintain stability, the government takes all the necessary measures, Khanveli stressed.

    The poultry industry developed in Azerbaijan in the late 90's, thanks to the privatization and modernization of Soviet era factory farms. The industry now uses modern automation technology in new, more technologically advanced facilities.

    Experts say that today, poultry is the most lucrative sector in Azerbaijans domestic livestock, which helps to offset the amount of poultry imported into the country.

    The state program on providing the Azerbaijani population of food products for 2008-2015 aimed to increase the production of poultry meat in the country to 90,000 tons from 61,000 in 2007 and egg production to 1.3 billion pieces from 953 million in 2007.

    Since 2011, the demand for eggs was covered mainly by imports, due to a lack of breeding farms. Only 45 percent of domestic demand was covered by the country.

    After establishing a large poultry farm in Zira village in 2011, equipped with modern facilities made in Holland, Italy, and Turkey, the costs of producing eggs were significantly reduced.

  • 06/17/2015:  How healthcare for wild animals could stop the next pandemic, National Geographic
    (Link to the original article)


    The virus was swift and lethal, claiming 162 lives in just three months. It left behind corpses covered in skin lesions and showing signs of severe pneumonia.

    Had the victims been human, the 2011 outbreak would have dominated the 24-hour news cycle. But, since the dead and dying were harbor seals washing up on the shores of New England, the story didnt capture the nations attention, let alone the worlds.

    That sort of thinking, public health officials say, is precisely why people are at risk from a range of potentially deadly diseases. We ignore wildlife diseases at our own peril, because a new or reemerging virus capable of killing animals also could be the harbinger of a human pandemic, such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, SARS and MERS.

    You increase the likelihood of diseases as well as the severity of the spread when animals are concentrated in smaller areas.

    Jonathan Sleeman

    National Wildlife Health Center

    All of those were zoonosesdiseases that initially spread from animals to people. In fact, pathogens infecting wildlife are twice as likely to jump over to humans as those without wildlife hosts.

    And yet, new viruses from animals continue to catch us off guard. When humans are diagnosed with certain diseases, its mandatory to report them to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Not so with wildlife diseases, where reporting continues to be done on an ad hoc basis, even as outbreaks become more frequent in response to environmental change.

    Since the 1990s, the number of new emerging diseases that weve seen is ever-increasing, says Jonathan Sleeman, an epidemiologist and the director of the U.S. governments National Wildlife Health Center. These diseases can spread fast and far, he says. And the consequences are more profound, causing marked declines in wildlife populations and, in some cases, extinction.

    Scientists are developing methods for treating animals and preventing viruses from spreading to the point where they become a public health threat. But, Sleeman says, once a disease gets into a wildlife population, it can be very difficult to manage or control it.

    Thats why, he says, we need a more robust surveillance system to stop outbreaks before they occur. For starters, hed like to see a network of labs that specialize in diagnosing wildlife diseases, all following the same standard operating procedures.

    And, he says, there needs to be better coordination among state and government agencies: The CDC studies human diseases, the USDA studies domestic animal diseases and we the National Wildlife Health Center study wildlife diseases. But I think, in this day and age, we need to be looking at how to combine our expertise and resources and come up with effective interventions that protect the agricultural economy and public health.

    Viral cocktail shaker

    Many of these outbreaks have one mammalian species in common: Homo sapiens. Climate change, for example, is believed to be the culprit for the emergence of Bluetongue virus across Europe. Warming weather allowed disease-carrying insects to spread as far north as the Netherlands, infecting farm animals and wildlife such as red deer and wild mountain sheep.

    Other zoonotic diseases, such as the Schmallenberg virus, have been spread around the world by insects that have hitched a ride on the international trade in produce and cut flowers. And environmental contaminants have suppressed the immune systems of some animals.

    But the primary driver for zoonoses is habitat loss, as forests are cut down to make room for suburban sprawl and plantations, while canals and dams divert water from wetlands.

    You increase the likelihood of diseases as well as the severity of the spread when animals are concentrated in smaller areas, Sleeman says.

    And, ongoing human encroachment upon natural land makes it more likely that pathogens will spill over from wildlife into humans and domestic animals. In Malaysia, for example, slash-and-burn deforestation forced fruit bats to scavenge for food in orchards, which were located near pig farms that provided manure as cheap fertilizer. It didnt take long for a disease, Nipah virus, carried by bats to spread to the pigs and then to their human handlers.

    This transmission from species to speciesand back againacts as a viral cocktail shaker, raising the odds that a disease that originates in wildlife will mutate into something more deadly and infectious to humans and animals alike.

    As a result, the 2.0 versions of a disease can reinfect the same wildlife that introduced the initial strain.

    In the 1990s, what came to be called avian flu began as a benign virus carried by wild birds. It then spread to poultry farms, where the crowded conditions served as an incubator for the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, which in 1997 began infecting people who handled contaminated bird carcasses. H5N1 then jumped back into the wild, where migratory birds became both victims and carriers of the disease in Asia.

    Wild fowl have also been identified as the source of H5 avian flu strains that are devastating the U.S. poultry industry. Since last December, 47 million farm birds have been culled in 21 states. These new viruses are a mixture of strains from both Asia and North America.

    The CDC says that the avian viruses burning their way through American poultry farms pose no threat to people. The same cannot be said of a strain of the avian H3N8 virus, which killed the New England harbor seals in 2011. Recent studies confirm that this strain mutated within the birds themselves, acquiring the ability to directly jump species by binding to receptors found in mammalian respiratory tracts. Researchers found no evidence that humans are immune to the strain. In fact, H3N8 was the likely cause of a pandemic in the 1880s.

    Begin with bats

    In the ongoing battle against wildlife zoonoses, one animal in particular merits further study.

    Bats have been identified as a vector for spreading diseases worldwidemost recently, Ebola in Africa and MERS in the Middle East. They are a reservoir species, otherwise known as an asymptomatic host, which means they can become infected without getting sick. Bats carry 60 different viruses and counting. Yet, little is known about their immune systemsa task made more challenging by virtue of the fact that there are more than 1,200 different bat species.

    Daniel Streicker, a researcher at the University of Glasgow who specializes in the epidemiology of bats, cautions that were not really certain if all bats carry viruses without getting sick.

    We'll catch a bat in the field, and it will seem fairly healthy, but it's rare that you actually do the follow-up work, like tracking an individual bat that is infected with something and seeing what its fate is.

    On the other hand, if some bats really are asymptomatic, that could provide clues to how they manage to control these infections, says Streicker. That, in turn, could lead to the development of new treatments for humans.

    One of Streickers current projects is in the emerging field of developing wildlife vaccinesspecifically, for Peruvian vampire bats that are spreading rabies. Researchers have developed an oral rabies vaccine that is placed in a gel and spread on a bats back. The bat is then put in a cage with others. Since vampire bats are social creatures, they groom one another and ingest the vaccine.

    Under lab conditions, 70 to 100 percent of the caged bats were successfully vaccinated against rabies using this method. Streicker is leading a team that is consulting with the Peruvian government about the possibility of testing the technique on bat communities living in the wild.

    Sleeman is likewise excited about the potential for developing wildlife vaccines, noting that a similar project is underway in the United States: a sylvatic plague vaccine for prairie dogs delivered orally by mixing it with peanut butter.

    For the time being, however, Sleeman believes that, as we continue to encroach upon natural land, we need to better understand the habits of our animal neighbors. He points to a recent study that found that 83 percent of miners and tourists who contracted Marburg virus from bats in Ugandan caves did so during breeding seasons, when there are large numbers of juvenile bats who are more susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus.

    Knowing that, we could possibly prohibit people from using the caves during these high-risk times of the year, says Sleeman. This is the basic sort of intervention we need to be devising to prevent spillover, allowing humans and wildlife to coexist.

  • 06/08/2015:  Why save the prairie dog?, Great Falls Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    The prairie dog, a grass-eating rodent commonly shot for recreation or poisoned for colonizing grazing land, is now the target of a seven-state field study to develop a vaccine to protect it from the plague, which researchers say poses the biggest threat to its survival.

    Weighing 1- to 3-pounds, prairie dogs live in "towns" where they construct complex tunnel system more than 20 feet deep.

    In the study, scientists are assessing the effectiveness of an oral vaccine in preventing plague in prairie dogs over a wide geographic range. If approved, the vaccine could be distributed in colonies in the form of pellets that the dogs would eat.

    Periodically, the same plague that caused pandemics in human populations in the Middle Ages, known as "black death," wipes out the colonies. The plague in the rodents and humans is caused by the same bacteria. It's often transmitted via bites from fleas carried by rodents.

    Why save the prairie dog?

    Driving the multistate effort is the black-footed ferret, which is listed as endangered and dependent on the prairie dogs as a food source.

    A plague vaccine already has been developed for ferrets. But even if ferrets can be protected from plague, they'll die off if prairie dogs aren't around, said Randy Matchett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. The ferrets hunt the prairie dogs in their burrows.

    In the early 1990s, plague wiped out prairie dogs on 15,000 to 20,000 acres in Phillips County alone.

    Associated species that use prairie dog burrows, such as burrowing owls, could benefit as well, Matchett said.

    And the vaccine research on prairie dogs could lead to improved public health for people as well, although that's not the focus of the study, he said. Human cases of plague, while rare in the United States, continue in the West, Matchett said. Cases are more common in less-developed countries.

    "It's the most comprehensive study I've ever been involved with," Matchett said.

    The wildlife refuge is one of 12 locations in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming where the effectiveness of the oral vaccine on four species of prairie dogs is being tested at 58 experimental colonies.

    Red sugar cube-sized bait that tastes like peanut butter is being placed near burrows.

    Bait at half the colonies is a placebo, with the other half containing a vaccine.

    All of the baits have bio-markers that cause the whiskers of the prairie dogs to turn pink so researchers can tell which ones ate the bait.

    Prairie dogs captured in cages baited with grain are placed in large plastic containers and anesthetized with isoflurane gas. Then they're sent through an assembly line of volunteers who take flea, hair, whisker and blood samples. The prairie dogs also are tagged so survival rates can be measured.

    This month, six volunteers are gearing up for the third year of the research at CMR.

    "Does it work in the field?" Matchett said of the vaccine. "That's a big question."

    The oral vaccine was developed in the laboratory by Tonie Rocke, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, with assistance from USGS and University of Wisconsin colleagues.

    Its success rate was 93 percent in the lab, Matchett said.

    Initial development came in the commercial sector as a vaccine for domestic cats to reduce the risk of plague transmission to people.

    Now field testing is underway to determine whether it works in the wild on prairie dogs.

    "We're almost hoping plague comes in and hits some of them so we can test the effectiveness of the vaccine," Matchett said. "In order to evaluate the vaccine, an animal has to encounter the disease to see if the vaccine works."

    Last summer, 1,300 prairie dogs were processed over 15 days at CMR, and about the same number will be processed this year.

    Last year, one of the volunteers became known as a "prairie dog whisperer" because she was able to coax prairie dogs from the wire cages to the anesthesia chambers by blowing on them.

    In 2014, 101,339 baits were put out in colonies in the seven states, and 8,282 prairie dogs were captured. Between 70 to 86 percent of the prairie dogs caught in 2014 had eaten the baits, both placebo and vaccine, Matchett said.

    The hypothesis is that prairie dogs that receive the vaccine will have a higher survival rate, Matchett said.

    Jay Bodner, natural resource director for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which represents 2,500 cattle ranchers, said the group doesn't have a position on the vaccine work.

    However, ranchers, in general, are concerned about excessive prairie dog colony expansion because prairie dogs eat "virtually every blade of grass in a prairie dog town," he said.

    "Prairie dogs, as they get out there and repopulate and expand their habitat and territory, they do have a big impact on the landscape," Bodner said.

    Keeping prairie grasses short helps prairie dogs better see potential predators as they stand on their hind legs scanning their surroundings, communicating through chirps or barks.

    A secondary concern for ranchers is horses stepping in the holes, Bodner said.

    "Landowners have prairie dogs and if they are at reasonable levels, we're fine with that," Bodner said. "If they do get overpopulated, and start having huge impacts, we want to be able to reduce that population."

    One way to reduce population is with poison, but that's a big expense to ranchers, Bodner said, noting that each hole needs to be baited.

    Another concern is prairie dogs being listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, like the ferret, Bodner said.

    A voluntary program offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers incentives to landowners willing to allow prairie dog colonies and ferrets on their property. The Stockgrowers Association is researching that program because it carries potential protections for landowners, and it's voluntary, Bodner said.

    Landowners who enroll can receive "safe harbor" protections assuring land-use activities can continue without additional regulatory restrictions.

    If the prairie dog vaccine works, it would be applied in very select prairie dog colonies where land managers approve black-footed ferret reintroduction, Matchett said. To vaccinate 10,000 acres, it would take about 500,000 baits, or 50 an acre.

    "This isn't for prairie dogs everywhere," Matchett said. "It's just where we want to recover ferrets and again, we don't know if it works."

    Officials also are hoping to use the vaccine specifically to protect the Utah prairie dog, a species that's already listed as threatened. Black-tailed prairie dogs occupy Montana.

    Less than 2 percent of prairie dog populations remain in the West, Matchett said. Its demise has come primarily from plague, with cultivation of native soils, poisoning and shooting contributing factors, he said.

    The two main challenges to ferret recovery are plague and human intolerance for prairie dog complexes large enough for ferrets to get established, he said.

    Previous research has shown that, even at times when prairie dog populations appear stable, plague is constantly present, just not at outbreak levels, affecting survival of both the prairie dogs and the ferrets, biologists said.

    "It's a pretty mysterious disease, but it's out there more commonly than we thought it was," said Dean Biggins, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who has been studying plague since 1985.

    In 2010, research in the West was expanded to mountainous areas and foothills and other species such as wood rats and chipmunks in an effort to learn more about how plague is affecting ecosystems and animals besides grasslands and black-footed ferrets.

    "Are there other endangered species in the West that are being similarly affected, where we just haven't looked to find out?" Biggins said.

    An older view was that the plague is epizootic, meaning it causes outbreaks, Biggins said. Newer research has shown it's also enzootic, meaning it's always present but affecting smaller numbers of animals.

    "The ferret has really spurred our interest in this," Biggins said.

    Today, modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague in people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death. Human plague infections continue to occur in the Western United States, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia, according to the center.

    More than 80 percent of United States plague cases have been the bubonic form. In recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases have been reported each year.

    The invasive bacteria was imported to North America from China around 1900.

    The research on prairie dogs also has the potential to contribute to reducing the risk of plague spread to people by managing plague in wildlife populations, Matchett said.

    In some Third World countries, rat fleas are primarily to blame for the spread of plague, Matchett said.

    If rats could be protected, like prairie dogs, the spread of plague to people could be reduced, he said. "It's a concept," Matchett said.

    In the United States, most of the human cases of plague are associated with prairie dogs and ground squirrels, Matchett said.

    Matchett noted rabies vaccinations for wildlife are distributed via bait in some Eastern states to protect people. The same concept could apply to vaccine for prairie dog research.

    "It's not the focus right now, but it certainly has that writing on the wall where this could turn into a mechanism to try to improve human health," Matchett said of the plague research involving prairie dogs.

  • 05/27/2015:  Are the USDA's bird flu numbers accurate?, Harvest Public Media
    (Link to the original article)


    The avian influenza virus is moving fast and its already the largest outbreak ever in the U.S.

    Since the beginning of May, weve watched and Tweeted what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has titled ALL Findings of bird flu. The updates come daily, about 3 p.m. Central, from a page run by the USDAs Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

    The latest update, posted Tuesday, looked like this:

    The numbers are alarming. But are they accurate?

    Yes. And no.

    Although its not stated here, the four large boxes at the top of the page count only those birds that are involved in food production. Left out are wild birds, which officials blame for the start and spread of the outbreak.

    In addition to the numbers above, check out the small table at the bottom of the main page it has five findings of avian flu in captive wild birds. Then theres a link to this pdf, which lists 72 wild bird findings by the USDAs National Veterinary Services Laboratories.

    179 + 5 + 72 = 256

    So, in fact, the total number of detections in the U.S. is 256.

    So whats with the arithmetic? The government counts the birds that way because it would be misleading and confusing to pair wild bird detections with commercial/backyard findings, said Lyndsay Cole, an APHIS spokeswoman.

    A detection in a commercial or backyard flock triggers quarantines, additional surveillance, appraisal and indemnity, and trade ramifications, Cole wrote in an email. This is not the case with wild bird detections.

    Hon Ip, a virologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., would agree that the way the birds are counted is confusing. But he believes the value in the count is combining all three numbers for a total -- food birds, captive wild birds and free-living birds.

    I think that the USDA has devised this system because they need to respond to many different drivers, and this is the best compromise that they ended up with, Ip said.

    Ip also called into question a story I did with Sarah Boden for NPR. We reported that the first confirmation of the highly pathogenic H5N2, which scientists consider a new super virus, was in a backyard flock in Washington State. That was the first detection in a captive flock. We were going by the first set of numbers on the USDA chart.

    In fact, Ip said, the first detected H5N2 infection was in a northern pintail, a wild bird, in Washington State on Dec. 8 of last year and confirmed on Dec. 12. Thats listed first on the pdf provided by the USDA, which is here.

    How does Ip know? Well, he was the researcher who first detected H5N8, another highly pathogenic avian influenza that began in Korea, and H5N2 in the U.S.

    Ive also been confused about the differences in what states are reporting and what the USDA publishes. For instance, on May 18, USDA announced five confirmed H5N2 outbreaks, including one called Sioux 13 -- an outbreak in Sioux County, Iowa, with 240,000 chickens -- and Sioux 14, with 272,300 chickens. But according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Sioux 13 is a backyard duck flock with 50 birds and Sioux 14 is a backyard flock with 12 birds.

    The discrepancies can be traced to Iowa announcing operations with presumptive positive results from a state lab, while the USDA announces poultry operations with confirmed numbers, Cole said.

    Other times there is human error in reporting the numbers initially, but this is resolved after the confirmed flocks are appraised, she said. The chart on the USDA website has the accurate numbers.

    Meanwhile, international scientists are watching this outbreak and using still different numbers. USDA officials reported to the OIE World Organisation for Animal Health, which tracks global animal diseases, that there were 171 H5N2 (considered the most dangerous) detections in May and 22 H5N8 detections. The USDA website reported 179 detections of both, solely in food animals.

    The bottom line, Ip said, is that these are all official government sources, and yet they disagree fundamentally on the scale and scope of the outbreak.

    The total count is expected to grow higher but taper off over the next few months. OIE Director General Bernard Vallat told Reuters this week that the outbreak could ultimately claim 50 million birds -- he's apparently using the USDA's form of counting -- but that he believes it will be under control by September.

    John Clifford, the U.S. chief veterinary officer, told Reuters that the worst is behind us because the summers heat and sunlight will help kill the virus.

  • 05/20/2015:  Bird flu is slamming factory farms but sparing backyard flocks. Why?, Mother Jones
    (Link to the original article)


    The Midwest's ongoing avian flu crisis is wreaking havoc on the region's large-scale egg and turkey farms. Last week alone, the US Department of Agriculture confirmed that the virus had turned up in more than 20 additional facilities in the region, condemning 4 million birds to euthanasia. Altogether, the H5N2 virus"highly pathogenic" to birds, so far non-threatening to humanshas affected 168 sites and a jaw-dropping 36 million birds, the great bulk of them in Iowa and surrounding states. It's the largest avian flu outbreak in US historyand it has already wiped out 40 percent of the egg-laying flock h Iowa, the number-one egg-producing state in the US, according to The New York Times.

    But it's largely leaving backyard flocks unscathed. Why?

    You'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," said one virologist.

    According to Hon S. Ip, a virologist at the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, it's a genuine mystery. Backyard flocks typically roam outdoors, in ready contact with wild birds, which are thought to be the origin of the virus. Their commercial counterparts live in tight confinement under strict "biosecurity" protocols: birds are shielded from contact with the outdoors; workers change into special boots and coverallsor even showerbefore entering facilities, etc.

    Ip said that wild birds could be spreading the virus in one of two ways: directly, by bringing chickens and turkeys into contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through wind-borne particles that, say, blow through vents in a confined facility. "If that's how it's spreading, you'd expect backyard flocks to be widely affected too, but they don't seem to be," he told me. Moreover, it has continued to spread in Iowa, even after the egg industry had ample time to ramp up biosecurity. All of this suggests something else, besides wild birds, might be the cause, Ip added.

    USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches.

    But what? He has no idea, he said. And nor, apparently, does anyone else. In a recent news item paywalled, the journal Science declared the outbreak "enigmatic." "All the old dogma about high-path influenza transmission has just gone out the window," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy here at the University of Minnesota, told the journal. "We're in totally uncharted territory."

    Meanwhile, in an interview with Iowa Public Radio, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack speculated that the virus could be entering farms through biosecurity breaches. "We've had circumstances recently where folks have been using pond water, for example, to feed and to water their birds. Well, that's a problem because the pond water could be contaminated," Vilsack said in the interview. "We've had situations where folks are supposed to shower before they go into the facility, but the shower doesn't work, so they go in anyway."

    I've seen no reports detailing current conditions on egg farms in Iowa, but it's worth noting that in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration found troubling biosecurity lapses within some of the state's largest egg facilities, after they had been forced to recall 550 million eggs due to potential salmonella contamination. The FDA inspectors' report detailed a variety of problems, including several involving contact between egg-laying hens and wild birds.

    While experts scramble to figure out how the disease is spreading, the egg and turkey industries are dealing with one particular immediate consequence: how to safely dispose of millions of potentially flu-ridden bird carcasses. As the Des Moines Register reports, the process is not going smoothly:

    Landfills in South Dakota, Nebraska and northwest Iowa, where poultry producers have been the hardest hit, have turned away the dead birds, fearful of the risk of contamination. The problem is so severe that on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stepped in to urge landfills to accept some of the millions of birds killed or destroyed by the H5N2 virus, saying delays could exacerbate odors and flies, problems neighbors have already complained about in some parts of the state.

    In response to these difficulties, the USDA has "dedicated 266 employees, including 85 in Iowa, and contracted more than 1,000 personnel to work around the clock across the 20 states affected by the outbreak," Vilsack wrote in a statement. In addition, the agency has allotted $130 million "in indemnity payments to help poultry producers who have lost flocks get back on their feet," Vilsack added.

    That relatively modest measure of taxpayer support for the poultry industry may just be the beginning. The USGS's Ip said the rate of new infections is "showing signs of slowing down" as warm weather sets in. Flu viruses are "less stable" at higher temperatures, he said, which is why flu tends to be much worse in winter than in summer. But as Reuters reported recently, the USDA warns that it's "highly probable" the strain will return when the weather cools this fall. If it does, and it spreads to the eastern and southern poultry beltswhere the great bulk of the chicken we eat is producedtaxpayers could be in for a real hit.

  • 05/14/2015:  Deer farming changes debated, WRAL
    (Link to the original article)


    RALEIGH, N.C. Wildlife and hunting groups are squaring off against the state over a proposal to expand deer farming in North Carolina.

    The changes are part of Senate Bill 513, this year's omnibus Farm Bill, which deals with issues from titling farm utility vehicles to allowing oversized loads to be hauled on Sundays to the disposition of unclaimed livestock.

    One section of the bill would move the oversight of "captive cervid herds" deer and elk farms from the Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and would allow deer to be transferred between farms within the state. It would ban the importation into the state of cervids susceptible to chronic wasting disease, such as whitetailed deer, until a live test for CWD has been established. The state's farm animal vets would be in charge of monitoring for the disease.

    Bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said it's a compromise between the wildlife commission and the Agriculture Department to which both sides have agreed.

    "This has been a long process," Jackson added.

    Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious virus that causes brain lesions and death in infected deer. The disease has wiped out huge populations of wild deer in other states, and conservation and hunting groups fear the importation of an infected farm deer could similarly decimate North Carolina's population.

    As of January, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, CWD is present in wild or captive populations in 21 states, mostly in the Plains and Upper Midwest but also in northern Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

    "It's the Ebola of the deer farm," said Bob Brown, vice chairman of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and former dean of North Carolina State University's College of Natural Resources, warning the Senate Agriculture Committee to disapprove the proposal.

    "Theres no test for live animals, no treatment, no cure, and once its here. Its in the soil permanently," Brown said.

    Proponents of the change insist that the Agriculture Department, which has expertise in dealing with food animal disease, will require full precautionary measures to ensure the captive herds can't intermingle with wild herds and to quarantine any outbreak in a captive facility.

    Brown was skeptical. "Theres no such thing as a deer-proof fence," he cautioned.

    While deer farmers say they support the move because the Agriculture Department could help them market their products, Brown argued the industry's main cash crop isn't venison.

    "Most of the deer raised in North Carolina are to be used in canned hunts in other states," he said, noting that all of the state's major hunting and conservation groups oppose both deer farming and canned hunting.

    Deer farmer Henry Hampton spoke in favor of the bill, arguing that current research on CWD shows it's safe to move deer within a state as long as the farm has been certified clear of CWD for five years.

    "It was the CWD that brought this to a head in 2002," Hampton said. "There was a set of regulations implemented in 2002 that completely stopped any deer farming or any movement of deer in the state of North Carolina. The herds that are in existence now have not had one gene of new blood in 12 years. Its not been limited; its been zero."

    Wildlife Resources Commission director Gordon Myers also spoke in favor of the bill, noting its "straight-up prohibition" on importing susceptible cervids and its ban on canned hunting in North Carolina.

    Myers said it's the commission's job to protect the public herd, which supplies 250,000 hunters in the state, an industry worth an estimated $350 million. Under the proposal, the commission would still have sole authority over those wild herds. but he said the involvement of the Department of Agriculture "will help us address critical risks associated with CWD transmission and other diseases."

    Co-sponsor Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said the disease could easily enter the state through "natural migration" from Virginia or West Virginia.

    "Those deers cant read that they're entering into North Carolina when they cross the state line. Then, CWD will be in North Carolina," he argued.

    But committee members on both sides were sharply critical.

    Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said her county commissioners have passed a resolution against the proposal.

    "Our hunting heritage that we depend on, especially in eastern North Carolina, is being put at risk for the benefit of really a few deer farmers," Bryant said.

    Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, was also skeptical.

    "Theres going to be big money made with these deer farms," Alexander warned. "There's going to be a temptation to import deer from outside the state because of the genes or because they have big racks or the does are bigger. These deer are not going to inspected for CWD, and we could be bringing this disease into the state."

    Despite opposition, the measure passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on a voice vote. Its next stop is in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

    Read more at http://www.wral.com/deer-farming-changes-debated-/14640528/#Ei3AvQFpoVwBMzv4.99

  • 05/14/2015:  Birds found dead on Lake Havasu had "severe blunt trauma", Havasu News
    (Link to the original article)


    Birds found dead on Lake Havasu in late-April showed signs of severe blunt trauma and have been sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for further testing, Arizona Game and Fish wildlife biologist Carrington Knox said Tuesday.

    A group of more than 30 dead eared grebes were spotted just south of Cattail Cove State Park on April 28 and reported to Game and Fish. Lake Havasu wildlife manager Suzanne Ehret retrieved sample specimens of the grebes and sent them to Game and Fish in Phoenix.

    Knox said initial observations of the grebes showed severe blunt trauma, but the cause of the trauma was unknown. She said grebes arent the best fliers and have been known to fly into power lines or be struck by boats. The testing of the birds is ongoing.

    At this point we cant determine what the trauma was caused by, she said.

    Knox said it was still unknown if environmental factors were a cause of the grebe deaths. The wildlife center, which is part of the US Geologic Survey, has more comprehensive testing capabilities than Game and Fish. Knox said it is common for the state to send specimens to be tested there and that it usually takes one or two months to receive results.

    Deanna Simpson, who reported the grebes after coming across them while fishing with her husband, said they were surrounded by blue-green algae, which has become more prevalent on Lake Havasu in recent years.

  • 05/08/2015:  Avian flu forensic mystery in Minnesota, Kare11
    (Link to the original article)


    MINNEAPOLIS - Turkeys are an $800 million business in Minnesota, but a quickly spreading strain of avian flu has put the industry in crisis mode, as scientists work to understand the mysterious disease.

    Experts say the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza that has killed millions of turkeys and chickens this spring is a mixture of a virus from Europe/Asia and another from North America, creating a kind of super bug that is likely to be around for several years.

    "Hopefully we can all put our heads together and figure this thing out," said Paul Young, a wildlife disease biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture.

    Scientists, who are also detectives, are collecting and analyzing evidence, trying to understand what brought the virus to Minnesota and why it's spreading so fast.

    Kandiyohi County has been ground zero for the outbreak, where more farms have been affected here than anywhere.

    Researchers know migrating birds, like ducks and geese, still flying back to Minnesota naturally carry the virus. It doesn't seem to affect them, but can remain in what those birds leave behind their droppings.

    The DNR and the USDA have been collecting thousands of what they call 'environmental' samples from areas where ducks have landed, primarily near water.

    "When a duck is on land and it poops and other ducks are stepping in the poop and eating around this fecal material, then it's spread from bird to bird," Hildebrand said.

    What if ducks dropped the virus on a farm during a flyby or is the answer blowing in the wind?

    One theory experts have discussed is whether avian flu in duck droppings may have spread by air because of high winds. They also believe there is more than one pathway the virus is using to get into farms and that the introduction of the virus has been point introduction not the result of a spread from farm to farm.

    So might the duck be an innocent bystander?

    A recent finding by wildlife pathologists in Madison, Wisconsin may have sent the case in a totally different direction.

    "Lots of things surprises me about this virus," said wildlife virologist Hon Ip, who studies animal viruses at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center - the CDC for wild animals. At a lab in Madison, scientists identify, track and help prevent infectious disease from spreading.

    Pathologists have been dissecting dead birds sent from Minnesota, testing them - along with wild turkey samples - for avian flu.

    "We need to know how the virus is truly spreading. Is it just by migratory birds," Ip said.

    And scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center did find the flu not in a duck but in a Cooper's hawk from Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota. The hawk, researchers believe, must have eaten an infected bird.

    The problem is the Cooper's hawk doesn't eat ducks. Scientists wonder if they should be looking at a different species of bird not just ducks as a potential carrier of avian influenza.

    "What's going to be important for us to monitor moving forward is how this virus may change and evolve," said Jonathan Sleeman, Director of the National Wildlife Health Center.

    From Madison to Kandiyohi County, scientists in labs around the country are trying to solve this mystery. In St. Paul at the U of M veterinary diagnostic lab, turkeys suspected of having avian flu are tested with those results confirmed at a USDA lab in Ames, Iowa. Even Fort Collins Colorado has a lab working this case, testing those duck droppings from Minnesota.

    John Zimmerman's livelihood depends on scientists finding answers to help contain the spread. He's a second generation turkey farmer from Northfield whose flock has not been affected yet.

    "Trying to keep what's outside out and what's inside in," Zimmerman said.

    Zimmerman has increased biosecurity measures on the farm and keeps visitors away from the turkeys.

    "Very little non-essential traffic at this time," he said. "The uncertainty of not knowing whether it's going to come for you or not istough to deal with."

    The biggest concern for some farmers is if people stop buying turkey and chicken. They want to stress that there is no evidence avian flu is a risk to human health and the meat is safe to eat

  • 05/08/2015:  Bird flu found in snowy owl in Oconto County, Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
    (Link to the original article)


    A snowy owl in Oconto County is the first wild bird in Wisconsin to test positive for an avian flu strain that is sweeping through poultry farms in the Midwest, including operations in Wisconsin.

    The Department of Natural Resources reported late Thursday a single snowy owl the largest owl by weight in North America had died from the H5N2 avian influenza virus.

    The owl is one of 11 dead wild birds that have been tested for the virus in Wisconsin, agency officials said. Test results on all of the birds have not yet been completed, but the snowy owl is the only bird known to have died from the virus.

    Since April 13, the virus has been found on 10 Wisconsin farms in Barron, Chippewa, Jefferson and Juneau counties, bringing the total number of chickens and turkeys affected by the disease to nearly 1.8 million.

    The latest finding is significant because it marks the first time the disease has been detected outside a Wisconsin farm.

    The snowy owl was found dead in mid-April near a breakwater on Green Bay in the city of Oconto, according to Tami Ryan, wildlife health section chief for the DNR. The owl showed no outward appearance of poor health.

    A necropsy by the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison showed the bird had died from the virus.

    Ryan said authorities have no way of knowing how the owl contracted the virus. No poultry operations with the virus are near where the dead owl was found.

    In the Midwest, the H5N2 in wild bird populations has been rare.

    Since mid-December, federal authorities said, 59 wild birds are known to have been infected with highly infectious strains of avian influenza, including H5N2. The Wisconsin case would be the 60th.

    Most of the birds have been found in the western United States.

    The nearest discovery outside Wisconsin has been in Yellow Medicine County, Minn., where a Cooper's hawk tested positive on April 29, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

    The hawk is believed to have eaten an infected bird, according to the health center. The agency said the positive test doesn't mean wild birds are the source of avian influenza in poultry.

    The DNR is now testing for the virus certain bird species that are found dead, such as raptors, wild turkeys and wild geese and ducks.

    Until now, Wisconsin's focus has centered on poultry operations.

    When the virus hits, Wisconsin farms have been quarantined and ordered to destroy poultry populations. Nearly 1.8 million chickens and turkeys have been killed, or are in the process of being killed.

    In addition to Wisconsin, recent outbreaks have occurred in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, North and South Dakota and Kansas, forcing the depopulation of nearly 16 million turkeys and chickens, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    H5N2 also has been detected in Ontario and in China.

    State agriculture officials said the avian influenza virus strain found in Wisconsin and other states represents a low risk to public health.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that no human infections from the virus have been detected. The agency said, however, that similar viruses have infected and killed people in the past.

    The agency said it is possible that human infections with the virus could occur.

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported numerous sightings of snowy owls over the winter. The birds nest in the arctic and begin to fly south in November. The last two winters have been notable for back-to-back years with large winter migrations.

    In the arctic summer, snowy owls feed on lemmings, a favorite food. When food supplies are abundant, it can trigger a larger birthrate and then trigger mass movements, known as "irruptions," as the owls look for new territories.

    Another theory holds that low lemming populations harm reproduction and force snowy owls to disperse to find food.

  • 05/07/2015:  Millions of chickens have bird flue and nobody knows how it's spreading, Motherboard
    (Link to the original article)


    Theres a massive epidemic taking place across the US right now, though you probably havent even heard about it. Over the last few months, more than 15 million chickens and turkeys have been infected with a deadly form of avian influenza, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Agriculture, and the countrys bird disease experts cant figure out how its spreading.

    No one has been able to conclusively determine how the flu is continuing to spread and the effects have been dire. Dozens of countries have introduced bans or restrictions on importing US poultry, including China, South Korea, and Angola, where the US shipped a combined $700 million worth of poultry last year, according to Reuters.

    There have been no reported cases of human infections, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that there is a slim possibility the virus could make the leap. While no human infections with these viruses have been reported worldwide, similar viruses (like Asian-origin H5N1, for example) have infected people in the past, the CDC website reads, though it makes clear that the risk is low.

    The outbreak started late last year with reported cases cropping up in a few backyard flocks in Oregon and Washington. By the end of January, the virus was found at a commercial farm in Californiaand since then dozens of commercial and backyard farms have reported infected birds, with the greatest numbers reported in Minnesota.

    Everybody is puzzled as to what could explain why large commercial farms seem to be affected, Hon Ip, a microbiologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, told me over the phone.

    Ip said the H5N2 strain has also been found in waterfowl that have been shown to carry the virus without getting sick. He said theres pretty solid evidence that the wild birds are spreading the bird flu, but there are still many questions about how the virus is getting into farmsparticularly the large-scale commercial farms where biosecurity (measures put in place to prevent viruses, bacteria, and parasites from getting anywhere near livestock) is usually quite strict.

    The usual suspects in historic outbreaks have been things like the truck that moves your chickens to the slaughterhouse or the truck that provides feed to your farm, Ip told me. But in the present outbreak, the usual suspects have been ruled out. There have been a number of epidemiological investigations. So now we need to start thinking about some of the more minor routes that may be the cause of the introduction of the virus.

    Ip said the virus could be infecting flocks through less detectable ways, via insects or rodents that have carried the flu from wild birds into a barn where they could then infect farm poultry. And Ip said once the influenza gets into a commercial operation, where hundreds of thousands of birds are in very close quarters, it can easily spread and wipe out an entire flock.

    Other researchers have suggested the virus might be airborne and carried through the wind via bits of infected feather or dust, but there are still a lot of questions. In the mean time, the virus shows to signs of slowing down. The governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and just last week Iowa, have all declared states of emergency in response to the outbreaks, hoping that disaster response measures might help curb the epidemic.

    Not in my years of state government have we had a disaster situation affecting our poultry like this, Iowa governor Terry E. Branstad said during a press conference last week after declaring the state of emergency. This is a magnitude much greater than anything weve dealt with in recent, modern times.

    Right now, the USDAs strategy for fighting the outbreak is to cull and carefully dispose of infected birds, closely monitor new cases of infection, and beef up biosecurity measures. Ip said that from his perspective, getting a more detailed picture of where the outbreaks are happeningand whether nearby wild birds are also infectedcould hold the answer to discovering how the virus is spreading and how to stop it.

    Are there a lot of wild birds that are infected and therefore lots of opportunity to track that into a farm? Ip said. Or is there some kind of agricultural practices that may be contributing to the spread?

  • 05/04/2015:  Wildlife officials monitor bat population, THOnline
    (Link to the original article)


    BY CRAIG D. REBER CRAIG.REBER@THMEDIA.COM

    Wisconsin conservation officials are preparing to release details of surveillance efforts one year after some Grant County bats were found to have white-nose syndrome.

    Little brown and long-eared bats found in a mine were infected with the syndrome, which is caused by a fungus. Infected bats wake frequently from hibernation, which can deplete their energy and cause them to starve or become dehydrated before spring.

    The discovery marked the first time the disease was confirmed in the state. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials found genetic markers for the fungus in two hibernating bats in a Dane County cave.

    Wisconsin DNR officials later this month will release the results of winter disease surveillance efforts, which include Grant County. Officials are awaiting test results from samples being examined at the U.S. Geological Survey-National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    In Wisconsin, samples were collected at 75 sites across the state. Samples were not gathered in all 72 counties.

    There are other methods for gathering information about bat populations.

    "Similar to other states, we conduct acoustic surveys to determine species diversity and relative abundance on a statewide level," said Paul White, a DNR mammal ecologist. "Acoustic bat surveys have proven to be a cost-effective survey technique to monitor many different species of bats at one time."

    He said surveys can be conducted by paddling, driving and walking either predetermined or exploratory routes.

    "We also have another citizen-based bat-monitoring project that focuses on maternity roosts of bats," White said. "Volunteers count bats as they emerge after sunset from known roosts so we can determine roosting preferences and pup survival, among other things."

    White said the surveys provide data that will be useful for 10 to 15 years.

    White-nose syndrome also has been confirmed in Iowa, making it the 26th state to have the disease that has killed more than 5.7 million bats since 2006.

    Three bats collected in Des Moines County were confirmed to have white-nose syndrome.

    White-nose syndrome also was confirmed in four little brown bats collected in Van Buren County this winter after a concerned citizen's report.

    The fungus previously had been detected in bats at Maquoketa Caves State Park in 2011, 2012 and 2013. However, it was not detected in the past two winters.

    Kelly Poole, an Iowa DNR biologist and white-nose syndrome coordinator, said winter monitoring will continue. Fungus samples from caves on public land, including Maquoketa Caves, will be analyzed.

    "Both on the regional and national levels, we will to monitor the situation," she added.

  • 05/03/2015:  Tri-state outdoors notes: authorities investigate waterfowl deaths, THOnline
    (Link to the original article)


    BY WENDY PAULY FOR TH MEDIA

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is awaiting test results to determine the cause of death for American coot and lesser scaup collected last week from Pools 9 and 10 of the Mississippi River.

    Officials do not suspect avian influenza.

    The waterfowl are being tested at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    Since last week, waterfowl by the hundreds have been found dead in the Mississippi River pools 7, 8, 9, and 10. The vast majority killed were American coot and lesser scaup, but some bluewing teal and canvasbacks were also found.

    This is the sixth time since 2002 that waterfowl die-offs have been documented on the upper Mississippi River and each time prior, trematodes were responsible.

    Trematodes are a parasitic flatworm that spends part of its life stage inside snails. Waterfowl die from trematodes each year but in years when snail populations are high, mortality rates of snail eaters -- American coots and lesser scaup at this location -- increases as well.

    Waterfowl have succumbed to trematodes in Pools 7, 8 or 9 on the river in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2012, and periodically in other lakes and streams around the Midwest. The invasive faucet snail is an intermediate host for three types of trematodes and is likely the source of the current outbreak.

    Wisconsin inland fishing season opens

    The general Wisconsin fishing season, which opened on Saturday, runs until March 6, 2016, however a variety of local and species-specific rules may apply.

    To learn more about statewide fishing regulations, search the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, for "fishing regulations." For a complete calendar, search "fishing season dates."

    Anglers can find fish species information, boat access sites, shore fishing areas, lake information and regulations by downloading the free Wisconsin Fish & Wildlife mobile app, which includes a full array of fishing information.

    Wisconsin residents and nonresidents 16 years old or older need a fishing license to fish in any waters of the state. Residents born before Jan. 1, 1927, do not need a license and resident members of the U.S. Armed Forces on active duty are entitled to obtain a free fishing license when on furlough or leave.

    Anglers can buy a one-day fishing license that allows them to take someone out to try fishing, and if they like it, the purchase price of that one-day license will be credited toward purchase of an annual license. The one day license is $8 for residents and $10 for nonresidents.

    Buying a license is easy and convenient over the Internet through the DNR website, at license agents and DNR service centers, or by calling toll-free 877-LICENSE (877-945-4236).

    Iowa walleye season opens on lakes

    The 139th walleye fishing season officially opened May 2 at Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji lakes. Beautiful weather is forecast this weekend, but lake conditions could create some challenges.

    "The lakes are very cool and clear this spring," said fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins. "We're seeing 12-15 feet of water clarity on Big Spirit Lake and 6-7 feet of clarity on East Okoboji. Walleyes are definitely more cautious and finicky in that clear water. When the water is this clear, the bite is usually a lot better after dark. Daytime walleye fishing will be tough.

    "Water clarity presents challenges anglers may be accustomed to, but lagging water temperatures are certainly another thing to keep in mind. After a cold first half of April, water temperatures are struggling to get into the 50s," Hawkins said.

    Walleye population assessments in the Iowa Great Lakes indicate very healthy numbers of large walleyes.

    "We continue to see some of the best numbers of broodstock-sized fish (17 inches and greater) that we have ever documented in the Iowa Great Lakes," he said. The smaller, harvest-sized walleye numbers are probably best on the Okoboji chain, while a better percentage of the Spirit Lake population is longer than 17 inches.

    A quick check of state park campgrounds in the area found many sites with electricity still available at Marble Beach, Gull Point and Emerson Bay.

    Walleye season opens the first Saturday in May through February 14 each year. There is a protected slot limit on walleyes from 17 to 22 inches, with only one walleye over 22 inches allowed per day. The daily limit is three walleyes with a possession limit of six.

  • 04/30/2015:  Iowa officials: bird flu not suspected in large waterfowl deaths, WHBL
    (Link to the original article)


    MADISON, WI (WTAQ) - Officials in Iowa say the bird flu is not suspected in the deaths of hundreds of waterfowl on the Mississippi River.

    The National Wildlife Health Center in Madison is testing four types of waterfowl to determine how they died. But the Iowa DNR says it does not suspect the H5 avian flu which has killed millions of chickens and turkeys in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest.

    It's the 6th time since 2001 that large amounts of waterfowl were found dead at one time along the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa.

    All the other outbreaks were blamed on a parasitic flatworm known as the Trematode.

    Most of the dead birds collected last week were American coot and lesser scaup. Canvasbacks and blue-wing teal were also found.

  • 04/30/2015:  State's first avian flu infection in wild bird found in Yellow Medicine County, West Central Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    SAINT PAUL A Coopers hawk from Yellow Medicine County is the first Minnesota wild bird to test positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza HPAI virus that has infected poultry farms across Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported Thursday morning.

    The Coopers Hawk was recovered April 14 after it flew on to the deck of a home in St. Leo in the western portion of the county and died. DNR wildlife staff collected the adult female hawk and sent it to the National Wildlife Health Center laboratory in Madison, Wis., for HPAI testing.

    Yellow Medicine County does not have any infected poultry barns, but the neighboring counties of Lyon, Lac qui Parle and Chippewa have reported confirmed cases.

    Coopers hawks are a common, crow-sized raptor that inhabit Minnesotas open woodlands. Unlike some other raptors, Coopers hawks do not prey on waterfowl or scavenge. They primarily kill smaller birds, are frequent visitors around homes and buildings and occasionally kill small mammals.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in January that a Coopers hawk from Washington state tested positive for the virus. Coopers hawks likely get the virus from something they ate, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager.

  • 04/27/2015:  Migrating birds may carry viral baggage, Alaska Public Media
    (Link to the original article)


    Right now, a lethal strain of bird flu is wreaking havoc in the Lower 48. Its clear that migrating flocks have something to do with spreading the illness between farms and across continents but exactly what is still fuzzy.

    A remote spot in Southwest Alaska may hold some clues.

    VmP

    The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is pretty far off the road system unless you count the avian highways that run overhead.

    Izembek provides wonderful staging habitat for large numbers of migratory birds both from Eurasia and North America, says Andy Ramey, a geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey. So theres potential for viruses to mix and be spread among birds at that location.

    Ramey and his colleagues recently published a new study on bird flu. To figure out how migration might be helping the virus get around, they visited the Izembek Refuge every fall when Emperor Geese and Northern Pintail ducks were passing through.

    Over four years, the researchers collected almost 3,000 swabs and fecal samples. None of them contained deadly flu, like the kind thats killing off poultry at farms in the Midwest.

    But Izembek did show an exact match for a harmless strain of bird flu thats only been found in China and South Korea.

    After some genetic tests, Ramey says, what we found was these viruses were sort of hybrids. That is, theyre essentially half-Eurasian and half-North American.

    These mixed-up viruses arent uncommon at the edge of the continent. Moving further inland, Ramey says youre more likely to find pure ones. And those are what researchers have been looking for to prove that migrations spreading bird flu.

    Theres been a lot of effort to find an apple in the basket of oranges, or an orange in the basket of apples, Ramey says.

    Finding a half-apple, half-orange virus in birds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean has never happened before, according to Hon Ip. Hes with the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.

    One possible mechanism of how this happened is that a Eurasian virus was brought by wild birds into Alaska and a reassortant virus emerged from a co-infection there that now generated this combination virus which has a little bit of Eurasian genes and a little of North American genes, Ip says.

    From there, it mightve hitched a flight back to Asia with a migrating duck or goose. Or the hybrid virus could have spread out from Russia.

    Either way, its a long journey. But Ip and Ramey say there might be more versions of the bird flu out there taking a similar path.

    Going forward, Ramey wants to continue testing birds in the Izembek Refuge to find out what kind of viral baggage theyre bringing with them and what happens when it gets unpacked across borders.

  • 04/27/2015:  White-nose syndrome found in bats in Des Moines and Van Buren counties, Radio Iowa
    (Link to the original article)


    State and federal wildlife officials say a disease known as white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in bats in two Iowa Counties.

    Iowa Department of Natural Resources endangered species co-ordinator Kelly Poole says three bats collected in Des Moines County were confirmed to have white-nose syndrome (WNS).

    Two little brown bats and one northern long-eared bat observed near a cave entrance showed visible signs of white-nose syndrome during monitoring for the disease and were collected at that time, Poole says. The U.S.G.S. National Wildlife Health Center in Madison confirmed that the bats had white-nose syndrome .

    There were other indications that WNS was present in the area. The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was also detected on additional samples collected from the cave, which as recently as last winter, February 2014, had no visual signs of white-nose syndrome, according to Poole.

    She says WNS was also confirmed in four little brown bats collected in Van Buren County this winter after a concerned citizen reported bats flying around outside. White-nose syndrome causes bats to come out of hibernation and use up needed fat reserves that allow them to survive through the winter. It has been found to be 95-percent fatal to bats.

    The fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans (P. d.) which causes the disease had previously been detected in caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park in 2011, 2012, and 2013, but it was not detected in the last two winters. Poole says they will now try to stop WNS from getting into any other areas of the state. At this point we will be shifting our focus to making sure that we minimize the potential for spread within the state and for it leaving the state, Poole says. She says they will continue their bio-security prevention measures and their outreach and education efforts.

    WNS is spread mainly by bats, but can be spread by humans, and education efforts include ways to prevent carrying it from one area to another. Jeremy Coleman is the national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and says the fungus is not a concern for humans.

    There is no known direct impact on human health from the disease, Coleman says. This is a fungus that affects bats when they are in hibernation and their bodies are close to the ambient temperature of the caves. It is a cold-loving fungus. He says the warmth of the human body makes it highly unlikely the fungus would grow. It is estimated that 5.7 million bats have died from WNS since 2006.

    Coleman says there is a great concern about how those loses will impact the ecosystem. Bats are the primary predator of night-flying insects in many of the forests and agricultural areas where they exist, and they are known to eat crop pests and other pest species. And their loss is estimated to be at a minimum of $3.7 billion to agriculture, Coleman says.

    Iowa is the 26th state where the disease has been detected. Volunteers are needed in Boone, Clayton, Dubuque, Hamilton, Hardin, Jackson, Lucas, Marshall, Story, and Warren counties for summer volunteer programs to monitor bats.

  • 04/27/2015:  Wisconsin report H5N2 in turkeys, backyard poultry, CIDRAP
    (Link to the original article)


    The H5N2 avian influenza virus is continuing to hopscotch through the Upper Midwest, as shown today by a report of Wisconsin's second and third outbreaks, in turkeys and backyard poultry at widely separated sites.

    The two new outbreaks, combined with previous ones listed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), boost the count of poultry outbreaks of H5N2 in the United States since December to 43, with most of them having occurred in the Midwest since early March. Twenty-two outbreaks have been in Minnesota, where more than 1.4 million turkeys have been lost to the virus and control efforts.

    In Wisconsin, the virus struck a farm with 126,000 turkeys in the northwestern county of Barron, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection reported in a statement. It also hit a flock of 40 backyard birds in Juneau County in the west-central part of the state.

    Both sites are distant from Wisconsin's first outbreak, on a chicken farm in Jefferson County in the southeast, which was reported 3 days ago. That was the first commercial chicken farm to be hit by the virus, which has overwhelmingly favored turkey farms.

    Wisconsin authorities said their response to the new outbreaks will follow the standard script, including quarantines of the sites, culling of the surviving birds, and testing of poultry at other sites nearby. "Officials are investigating how the virus entered the flocks and may not have answers for some time," the statement said.

    Such answers have eluded investigators of all the H5N2 outbreaks so far. Officials say wild birds such as ducks can carry the virus and shed it in their feces without appearing sick, but scientists have not reported finding the virus in wild birds near any of the recent outbreak sites. The recent outbreaks have occurred in the Central and Mississippi flyways for migratory birds.

    H5N2 has surfaced in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana since early March, as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin. Earlier in the winter it hit a few poultry flocks in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. A few detections in wild birds have been reported as well.

    Eastern poultry farmers worried

    Meanwhile, poultry producers in the eastern United States are worried about the threat of an H5N2 invasion, according to an Associated Press (AP) report yesterday. It said the concern is that if the virus isn't already hiding somewhere in the Atlantic flyway, it could spread there when wild ducks fly south for the winter this fall or return north next spring.

    Government scientists speculate that when ducks and other migratory waterfowl from different flyways gather on northern breeding grounds this summer, they could expose each other to the H5N2 virus, and then carry it back south this fall along several migration routes, perhaps including the Atlantic flyway, the story said. The flyway includes several of the country's top poultry producing states, such as Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.

    Hon Ip, PhD, MS, a microbiologist with the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., told the AP that researchers believe the spread of the Eurasian H5N8 virus from Asia to Europe and North America last year resulted from the mingling of migratory birds in northeastern Russia last summer. The H5N2 virus is a product of reassortment between the Eurasian H5N8 strain and viruses from North American wild birds.

    One challenge scientists have in predicting how H5N2 may spread is that they don't have enough surveillance data from wild birds to prove they're the source yet, said Tom DeLiberto, DVM, PhD, assistant director of the USDA's National Wildlife Research Center, according to the AP. He said only 56 wild birds have tested positive for H5N8, H5N2, and a few similar viruses, and most were in the Pacific Northwest. Only four or five wild birds have tested positive in the Mississippi flyway, he said.

    H5N1 in Bhutan, H5N6 in Hong Kong

    In other developments, Bhutan today reported its first H5N1 avian flu outbreak since April 2013. The virus killed 16 of 37 birds in a backyard poultry flock in the western province of Thimphu, an agriculture official said in a report to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) today.

    The outbreak was first noticed Apr 3, the report said. The surviving birds were destroyed to stop the virus, and no cases were seen in nearby flocks.

    Also today, Hong Kong officials reported that the H5N6 avian flu virus was found in a dead peregrine falcon, the first such detection in the territory. The carcass was found at a construction site, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said in a press release.

    The H5N6 virus has caused a few poultry outbreaks in China, Vietnam, and Laos since it first cropped up in China in March 2014, and China has had three human cases, two of them fatal.

  • 04/27/2015:  Minnesota declares H5N2 emergency as spread continues, CIDRAP
    (Link to the original article)


    Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton today declared an emergency over the widespread H5N2 avian influenza invasion of poultry farms, as the state's first outbreaks in chickens and backyard poultry were reported and Wisconsin and Iowa each announced a new turkey outbreak.

    By declaring a state of emergency, Dayton activated an emergency operations plan to support the state's response to the crisis, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. The state has logged 46 outbreaks in 16 counties, with more than 2.63 million birds either killed by the virus or destroyed to stop its spread, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (MBAH).

    Dayton's action also calls for National Guard troops to be used as needed, but it wasn't immediately clear whether any would be called up, the story said. On Apr 20, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker authorized the Wisconsin National Guard to help respond to H5N2, after the state veterinarian asked that a few Guard members be made available.

    Large chicken farm hit

    Minnesota's first H5N2 outbreak on a commercial chicken farm was reported today at J & A Farms, an egg operation about 20 miles west of Detroit Lakes in the northwest, the Star Tribune reported. In addition, the MBAH reported an outbreak in a mixed backyard flock of 150 poultry in Pipestone County, near the state's southwestern corner, the county's first outbreak.

    Amon Baer, owner of the chicken farm near Detroit Lakes, told the newspaper he must destroy about 300,000 chickens after tests he ordered confirmed the presence of the virus. The story said the MBAH was aware of the test result and was in the process of confirming it. If confirmed, the outbreak will push the state's losses of turkeys and chickens close to 3 million.

    Baer said that dealing with the outbreak will be very costly, since it includes cleaning and disinfecting facilities in addition to culling all the birds, according to the story. He said federal assistance will cover some of his losses but not nearly all of them.

    Chickens are believed to be less susceptible than turkeys to H5N2, but a few chicken-farm outbreaks have been reported, including at least one each in Iowa and Wisconsin

    The MBAH's list of 46 Minnesota outbreaks does yet not include the chicken-farm event. In addition, one of 15 reported outbreaks in Kandiyohi County is not yet included in the total, because the number of affected birds has not yet been confirmed, MBAH spokeswoman Bethany Hahn said today.

    Another Wisconsin outbreak

    Meanwhile, Wisconsin officials today reported the state's sixth H5N2 outbreak, on a farm with 90,000 turkeys. It's the second outbreak in Barron County in the northwestern part of the state.

    In a statement, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said the property was quarantined and the surviving birds will be destroyed, as neighboring poultry owners are notified.

    Wisconsin's first H5N2 outbreak surfaced in Jefferson County on Apr 13, and more outbreaks have occurred since then in Jefferson, Juneau, Chippewa, and Barron counties. In those counties, State Veterinarian Paul McGraw has banned movement of poultry to shows and swap meets, the statement noted.

    More Iowa turkeys affected

    Also, early this evening the Iowa Department of Agriculture (IDA) reported the state's third outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), involving a commercial turkey flock of 34,000 birds in Sac County in the western portion of the state.

    The farm is within the 10-kilometer monitoring zone of an H5N2 outbreak in Buena Vista Country that was reported on Apr 14, Iowa's first H5N2 outbreak. This is Iowa's third outbreak of HPAI in poultry. The second, reported earlier this week, involved 3.8 million chickens in Osceola County, adjacent to Minnesota.

    Preliminary tests indicate the outbreak was cause by an H5 strain, the IDA said in a news release, and samples have been sent to the US Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, to confirm the exact strain.

    Scientists see long-term threat

    In other developments, an article in Emerging Infectious Diseases suggests that H5N2 and other descendants of the H5N8 avian flu virus that arose in Asia in 2014 may be a long-term threat to poultry and wildlife in the Northern Hemisphere.

    The article, by three staff members of the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., traces the emergence of H5N8 and its various progeny, including H5N2. It says the H5N8 virus apparently arose in China through reassortment of highly pathogenic H5N1 with various low-pathogenic viruses.

    The H5N8 virus was first detected in early 2014 in poultry and wild birds in South Korea and subsequently surfaced in Russia's wild waterfowl in September, the article notes. Since then the virus and various reassortants have been found in poultry and wild birds in Europe, Taiwan, Japan, Canada (British Columbia), and the western and central United States.

    Because wild waterfowl are natural hosts for avian flu viruses, and H5N8 seems to have little effect on them, "it seems probable that the virus was disseminated out of Russia into Europe, East Asia, and North America by migrating waterfowl during autumn 2014," the report says.

    It goes on to state, "Persistence of the original HPAI H5N8 virus for >1 year, the creation of multiple reassortant viruses that have maintained high pathogenicity in poultry, and adaptation of the virus to migrating waterfowl all indicate that these viruses could persist and spread in Northern Hemisphere waterfowl populations for an extended period."

    As the viruses persist, so does the threat of new genetic combinations that could arise in wild waterfowl and then spill over into poultry and other birds, the authors add. They ask, among other questions, whether these viruses might reassort with viruses from other species, such as swine, and whether such reassortant viruses might pose a risk to humans.

    They also observe that H5N8 and related strains may be a threat to wild raptors, as suggested by the infections detected in gyrfalcons and a few other species in North America.

  • 03/17/2015:  "Basically, they just fell out of the sky": 2,000 snow geese found dead in Idaho, The Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    About 2,000 snow geese migrating from Mexico to their Alaskan nesting grounds were found dead in Idaho, the state's Department of Fish and Game announced Monday. Although testing is still in progress, officials believe that the deaths are consistent with avian cholera.

    The suddenness in which the birds died is part of the reason that experts suspect avian cholera, which kills acute sufferers in as little as six hours. Basically, they just fell out of the sky, Fish and Game spokesman Gregg Losinski told Reuters.

    To prevent any other wildlife from picking up the disease, officials have collected and burned the carcasses, all found in the Mud Lake and Market Lake Wildlife Management Areas in the southeast region of the state.

    "The important thing is to quickly collect as many of the carcasses as possible, to prevent other birds from feeding on the infected birds," Upper Snake Regional Supervisor Steve Schmidt said in a statement. The carcasses were collected over the weekend.

    Dead birds, fish kills prompt doomsday theories, but scientists say they're natural

    While local wildlife populations are potentially at risk from avian cholera, humans are at a low risk of picking up an infection from the bacteria that causes the disease, officials said. It's not clear where the geese may have contracted the illness, but Schmidt noted that avian cholera has "occurred sporadically in the region over the past few decades."

    Observers are already concerned about one group of scavenging birds spotted near the carcasses: about 20 bald eagles, a bird species that scavenges for food. But as Fish and Wildlife notes, avian cholera's incubation period means that officials aren't certain they'll be able to locate the eagles "if and when the avian cholera affects them."

    Geese, coots, gulls and crows are the birds most commonly infected with avian cholera, the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center says. It's spread a few different ways: from bird-bird contact, from contact with "secretions or feces" from an infected animal, or from ingesting bacteria-containing water and soil.

    Bald eagles are starting to flourish again but hold the confetti

    The bacteria that cause avian cholera can live in soil and water for months, the USGS adds. Aerosol transmission in this case, from birds landing, splashing or otherwise disturbing a body of infected water and spraying it onto nearby birds is also thought to be possible. The only way to stop an outbreak is to cull the flock of sick individuals, but sometimes that's easier said than done: Some birds show no symptoms and carry the disease for life, causing acute outbreaks as soon as they encounter a susceptible flock.

    Early symptoms can include lethargy, convulsions, a discharge from the mouth, matted feathers and erratic movements on the ground and in the air including flying upside down, according to USGS. But many outbreaks of the disease are spotted only after the birds have died from it.

    That's because once birds become sick from the disease, they usually don't have very long to live. Some contracting the acute form of the disease die within 6 to 12 hours of exposure, but more often, it takes 24 to 48 hours. Birds drop from the sky in otherwise "good body condition," USGS says, "Death may be so rapid that birds literally fall out of the sky or die while eating with no previous signs of disease."

  • 03/17/2015:  2,000 snow geese found dead in Idaho: what happened to them?, Tech Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Over 2,000 snow geese have been found dead in Idaho, and biologists are uncertain of what caused the die-off. Some researchers believe that an outbreak of avian cholera could be responsible for the unexplained deaths.

    The birds were migrating from Mexico and the southwestern United States to nesting grounds in Alaska when they fell dead on the Mud Lake and Market Lake wildlife management region outside Terreton, Idaho. Around 10,000 snow geese pass through this area each March during their annual migration. Here, the animals rest for a week or two, feeding on wheat from nearby agricultural fields.

    If avian cholera turns out to be the cause of the deaths, the illness could pose a significant risk to healthy animals in the area.

    "Outbreaks of avian cholera have occurred sporadically in the region over the past few decades. The important thing is to quickly collect as many of the carcasses as possible, to prevent other birds from feeding on the infected birds," Steve Schmidt, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Regional Supervisor, said.

    Avian cholera can spread so quickly among the geese that birds in flocks can fall from the sky, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

    Around 20 eagles are believed to have been in the area where the snow geese died, although it is unknown whether or not those animals were exposed to whatever may have caused the deaths of the snow geese. The body of a trumpeter swan was also found among the avian carcasses, and biologists believe that animal may have perished of the same cause as the snow geese. No other mass deaths of birds have been reported in any neighboring areas.

    The quick deaths of the birds in such large numbers suggest avian cholera as a possible cause. No one is certain if the animals contracted the illness during their migration. The bacteria can live in water and soil for up to four months, compounding challenges in detecting the source of the illness and in preventing further contamination.

    Snow geese are named for their coverage of white feathers as well as their habit of making their summer homes in Alaska and Canada.

    Although avian cholera spreads quickly through populations of birds, the bacteria poses little risk to humans, health officials state. Similar outbreaks occasionally occur around the United States and other nations. Still, residents of eastern Idaho and tourists are being warned not to handle the birds over fears they could spread the deadly bacteria to other animals. Wildlife officials are currently collecting the carcasses in an effort to prevent the deadly disease from spreading.

  • 03/17/2015:  Thousands of dead geese fall from sky over Idaho, RYOT
    (Link to the original article)


    It was raining death from above in Idaho this weekend. Thousands of dead snow geese suddenly dropped from the sky in mysterious fashion, with wildlife officials scrambling to prevent a possible outbreak of avian cholera.

    Idahos Fish and Game Department said the birds were on their way to Alaska when they suddenly fell from the sky.

    Basically, they just fell out of the sky, Department spokesman Gregg Losinski told Reuters.

    The U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center said that because the disease acts so quickly once it becomes active that infected creatures like snow geese can literally fall dead from the sky.

    Officials quickly gathered the dead geese and incinerated them. Avian cholera doesnt post much of a risk to humans but officials said it could pose a risk to other wildlife and the birds landed near local bodies of water. Losinski said traces of avian cholera could survive in water and soil for up to four months.

    Outbreaks of avian cholera have occurred sporadically in the region over the past few decades, department supervisor Steve Schmidt said in a news release. The important thing is to quickly collect as many of the carcasses as possible, to prevent other birds from feeding on the infected birds.

    An estimated 2,000 of the geese fell from the sky. Officials said they spotted about 20 bald eagles near the carcasses but because the avian cholera has a long incubation period theres no way to tell if any other animals were infected before the dead geese were removed from the scene. One dead trumpeter swan was also spotted at the scene and likely also died from avian cholera.

    Avian cholera outbreaks are rare but not unheard of. Earlier this year, a similar outbreak killed an estimated 300 geese but was contained before any other wildlife populations were affected.

  • 03/17/2015:  2,000 snow geese die from illness in Idaho wildlife areas, The News & Observer
    (Link to the original article)


    MUD LAKE, IDAHO

    Some 2,000 migrating snow geese have died recently in eastern Idaho, likely from a disease that comes on quickly and can kill birds in midflight, wildlife officials say.

    The Idaho Department of Fish and Game says staff and volunteers collected the dead birds over the past several days at wildlife management areas near the towns of Terreton and Roberts.

    The cause of death likely was avian cholera, which can cause convulsions and erratic flight, the agency said.

    Authorities said the geese, known for their distinctive white bodies and black wingtips, were migrating from the Southwest and Mexico to breeding grounds on Alaska's north coast.

    It's unclear where they picked up the bacteria, said Steve Schmidt, a regional Fish and Game supervisor. "Outbreaks of avian cholera have occurred sporadically in the region over the past few decades," he said in a news release.

    "The important thing is to quickly collect as many of the carcasses as possible, to prevent other birds from feeding on the infected birds," Schmidt said.

    Biologists at the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area near Terreton said about 20 eagles also were in the area, though it's unclear if they were exposed.

    According to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, avian cholera spreads so quickly in infected birds that some with no previous signs of illness can die while in flight and fall out of the sky.

    Health experts say humans are not at a high risk of infection from the bacteria that causes avian cholera.

    Schmidt estimated that up to 10,000 snow geese pass through eastern Idaho each March to rest at its wildlife areas. They spend a week or two and make short flights to feed on waste grain in nearby wheat fields before continuing north.

    He said Tuesday he had no reports of deaths of other snow geese from similar areas in other states.

    Schmidt said among the dead birds was a dead trumpeter swan, which he said likely also died of avian cholera.

    Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/living/health-fitness/article14971694.html#storylink=cpy

  • 03/12/2015:  Deadly bat disease spreading in Arkansas, The Baxter Bulletin
    (Link to the original article)


    LITTLE ROCK Bats from a privately-owned cave in Independence County, a cave on the Buffalo National River in Newton County and a cave on McIlroy Madison County Wildlife Management Area have been confirmed to have white-nose syndrome or the fungus associated with it.

    The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome, a disease fatal to several bat species, in two caves early last year. Arkansas now has confirmed bats from four counties have WNS, and it is suspected in three others. Since 2010, the AGFC and other public agencies have closed most all public caves in the state to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome.

    Caves on the Ozark National Forest have been closed to human use since 2009, with the exception of the guided tours at Blanchard Springs Caverns, where the disease was discovered in March 2014. The U.S. Forest Service has closed nearly all its caves in Arkansas through 2019.

    The disease also was previously documented in two northern long-eared bats found at a cave on natural area managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in Marion County, plus in a private cave located in southern Baxter County.

    Recent cases

    The Independence County cave was surveyed in January. Two dead tri-colored bats were submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., where the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome was confirmed.

    Later in January, in the cave on the Buffalo River in Newton County, biologists found three tri-colored bats that had fungus on their muzzles. Two of the bats were confirmed to have white-nose syndrome. Also in a January survey, biologists found the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome on tri-colored bats and the walls of a cave on the McIlroy Madison County WMA.

    AGFC Nongame Mammal Program Leader Blake Sasse said the findings don't bode well for the state's bat population.

    "I'm not surprised. In spite of all efforts, nothing has been able to stop the spread of this disease since it was discovered in the United States several years ago," Sasse said.

    Discovered in New York

    White-nose syndrome was discovered in a cave in New York in 2006. Since then, it has been confirmed in five Canadian provinces and 25 states. It is not known to affect humans, but has been responsible for the deaths of millions of bats.

    "So far we haven't seen any significant declines of Arkansas bat populations, but that is probably only a matter of time," Sasse noted.

    March 24, 2014: Blanchard Springs Caverns bat tests positive for WNS

    White-nose syndrome is believed to cause bats to use up their fat reserves rapidly during hibernation. Affected bats sometimes fly out of caves during winter in an attempt to find food. Since the insects bats eat are seasonally dormant, the bats die of starvation. While the night creatures are often portrayed in a negative light, bats play a key role in keeping insects, including agricultural pests, mosquitoes and forest pests, under control.

    As with any wild animal, do not approach or touch dead or dying bats. Contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as soon as possible at www.agfc.com to report your observations. Additional resources on white-nose syndrome can be found at www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

    What is WNS?

    White-nose syndrome is a disease affecting hibernating bats. Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and other parts of hibernating bats, WNS is associated with extensive mortality of bats in eastern North America, where 5.7 million have been killed since 2007.

  • 03/12/2015:  Lost at sea: starving birds in a warming world, Audobon
    (Link to the original article)


    A couple of days after Christmas, Carl Haynie and his wife, Terry Risdon, made the three-hour drive from their home in Sammamish, Washington, to the same remote beach theyve visited every month for five years. They passed through the Seattle suburbs, hugging the rugged coast to reach their isolated, one-kilometer stretch on the Olympic Peninsula. Haynie and Risdon are beach bird monitors, two of the more than 1,200 volunteers who patrol shores from California to Alaska, recording any dead birds that wash up in their survey zone.

    Haynie, a software developer and longtime birder, likens the outings to treasure hunts. You never know what youre going to find. Hes spotted carcasses of such rare birds as Pink-footed Shearwaters and Black-footed Albatrosses, and deduced the identities of 40-plus species by a wing, head, or foot alonesometimes all thats left. But the pair had never seen anything like what awaited them that December day.

    Dark bumps peppered the beach. Walking over to one, they realized the coast was littered with dead Cassins Auklets. The softball-size seabirds showed little wear and tear, despite having been spit out of the ocean and rolled across the sand. Risdon began picking up carcasses; after a quarter-mile her bucket was overflowing. By the surveys end, theyd collected 62 auklets. It was pretty crazy, recalls Haynie. Weve found dead birds before, but never more than 20 in one go. And weve never seen more than two Cassins.

    Worse, it turned out their stretch wasnt the only beach seeing record numbers of dead Cassins. Since October, in what biologists are calling an unprecedented die-off, thousands of the birds have washed ashore, from central California north to British Columbia. Dozens of experts from disciplines as wide-ranging as oceanography, pathology, and climatologyplus the volunteer armyare working together to gather pieces of the puzzle. As of early February, when Audubon went to press, the wreck was still unfolding, and the primary culprit was thought to be something the scientific community dubbed the blob.



    Every avian species that winters at sea inevitably suffers losses, especially after big storms. But when Cassins started washing up, people took notice. Its not that the birds are endangerednot even close. Their global population is 3.5 million strong. Its all about what they eat. These diminutive birds dine largely on zooplankton, tiny marine creatures near the bottom of the food chain. That makes them a very useful ecological indicator, says Bill Sydeman, a senior scientist at the Farallon Institute, a marine ecology nonprofit; hes been studying Cassins for three decades. If ocean conditions change, auklets might be an early warning sign.

    It became clear that something was up in late October, when volunteers began reporting seeing 10 to 100 times the normal number of Cassins bodies. Thats a lot, says Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird expert who launched the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), whose 700 volunteers include Haynie. That doesnt actually translate into knee-deep in bodies, but in the stretches with the highest number of birds350 per kilometer, probably the highest wreck value weve seen in the Lower 48youre only going a few steps before you see the next one.

    Because the birds usually sink or are eaten before they wash ashore, Parrish estimates that in addition to the 3,500 recorded on land, tens of thousands more have died and disappeared at sea. Cassins seem to be the only seabird affected. Its curious, says Parrish. If the bottom was falling out of the food chain, we might expect to see a wide variety of species stressed. It could be that Cassins are dying out early.

    By November experts had a solid grip on the magnitude and extent of the wreck, thanks to the volunteers from American and Canadian beachcomber groups. But they still didnt know the cause. That requires corpsesthe fresher, the better.

    An email asking COASSTers to collect dead Cassins was on Diane Bilderbacks mind when she went to survey her stretch near Bandon, Oregon, on November 22. A volunteer since 2006, Bilderback figured she might be busy, because a big storm had hit the night before. The surf was huge that day, the waves capped with thick sea foam whipped up by the water. Bilderback watched an auklet tumble onto the beach. I could tell it was still alive, she says, but not for long. She kept walking. When she returned 20 minutes later, it was dead.

    With gloved hands, Bilderback placed the bird in a Ziploc bag, following instructions outlined by the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where the auklet was headed. At home she transferred it to the best place to keep it cool: her refrigerator. On Monday she packed the chilled carcass in a Styrofoam cooler lined with icepacks, boxed it up, filled out the paperwork, and took the package to FedEx (the go-to folks for transporting animals, including live pandas and sea lions). Tuesday the auklet arrived on schedule.

    If theres an American wildlife mystery in the air, the scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center are likely on the case. They identified the deadly fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats. They proved that the aflockalypse, when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky four winters ago, wasnt caused by an environmental catastrophe but by New Years fireworks (spooked birds crashed into stationary objects at night and died). And last winter they figured out that West Nile virus, typically seen in summer, killed 20,000 Western Grebes in Utah.

    When Bilderbacks auklet arrived, wildlife pathologist Julia Lankton got to work. In a pressurized necropsy room built to contain the nastiest diseases, Lankton swabbed the birds mouth and cloaca before examining the feathers, skin, mouth, eyes, and ears for trauma or lesions. Everything looked intact, just like with the dozen-plus other Cassins shed received. She opened up the bird, cutting into its white-feathered belly. She removed each organ, and took tissue samples for viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and toxicological tests, some of which can take weeks (not exactly the 50 minutes people expect from watching CSI, she says).

    Lanktons findings confirmed what pathologists in California and Oregon had found. Most are juveniles born this year, she says. Theyre emaciated, and very rarely have we found any food in their stomachs. Food loss might have prevented the birds from feeding actively, but Lankton couldnt rule out an underlying disease or toxin thats messing with their ability to find food. The final diagnostic test results are due in February.

    Still, shed uncovered important clues: Every bird was starving, and most were young-of-the-year. We think its involved with copepods and krill the zooplankton Cassins eat and the really unusual ocean conditions weve seen this year, says the Farallon Institutes Sydeman. But we dont know how it all fits together.

    Thats where the blob comes in.



    The blob is the name Washington climatologist Nick Bond gave to the enormous, anomalously warm, 100-meter-deep mass of water that formed in the Gulf of Alaska in early 2014, due to abnormally weak winds in the North Pacific. Another one formed off Baja California last year. And the typical upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water off the West Coast never materialized last summer because a low-pressure trough between California and Hawaii weakened the winds that drive the process. Its been a weird year, says Nate Mantua, a climatologist with NOAA Fisheries. Water temperatures have been 5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual from British Columbia to California starting about midsummer, and I dont have any good explanation about why this happened.

    Mantua says he cant link the blobs formation to human-induced climate change, and predictions of a strong El Niowhich carries tropical waters northwere wrong. Its not unprecedented, Mantua says of the warming, but it is up there with the extremes in historical records.

    While the warm water brought rare visitors, including Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and pygmy killer whales, it doesnt support the energy-rich zooplankton communities that Cassins eat. Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries, samples copepods twice a month. When local winds died down in late September and the blob moved in, copepod species Id never seen in my life showed up off the Oregon coast, he says. Unlike the boreal copepodsbig, full of lipids, and they make everybody that eats them fatthese tropical ones are skinny. He suspects that the blob drove the krill too deep for auklets to reach, and flushed the fatties out of the area.

    Jaime Jahncke, a biologist with the California nonprofit Point Blue, saw something similar happen off central California. In September, instead of getting krill in our nets, we were getting gelatinous zooplankton, which Cassins dont eat, he says. It was a dramatic change from what we saw earlier in the year, and in previous years.

    Jahncke and Petersons observations hint that the Cassins prey was likely diminished all along the West Coast in the fall. Another important fact: 2014 was a banner breeding year for Cassins, both in British Columbia, where three-quarters of the population nests, and in the Farallon Islands, off San Francisco. Weve got a lot of young, inexperienced, nave birds out there right now, says Mark Hipfner, a seabird population research scientist for Environment Canadas Wildlife Research Division, who directs a program in B.C. that monitors about half the worlds Cassins. If conditions get tough, these are the birds likely to succumb first.



    For now the scientists working the Cassins case can do little more than wait. Hipfner says he cant gauge the full extent of the wreck until the adults return to breeding colonies. If the die-off largely hit young birds that havent reached breeding age, it shouldnt cause long-term damage to the population, he adds.

    As for whether other species are suffering, nobody knows yet. Several scientists said a lag effect going up the food chain might surface. Theyll keep a close eye on other seabirds, small fish such as anchovies, and juvenile salmon (krill eaters already suffering from the drought plaguing the West).

    In the meantime, Mantua, the NOAA climatologist, says waters off the West Coast likely wont cool soon. The high-pressure systemwith less wind and fairer weather favorable for the blobis persisting, so the North Pacific is staying warm.

    As for beachcomber Carl Haynie, he was heartened by his January 19 survey, which turned up only 14 Cassins. My god, I hope its finally dying down. Hes concerned for the birds, of course. But the treasure-hunter in him is also ready for the next mystery.

  • 03/10/2015:  Missouri's second H5N2 outbreak in turkeys confirmed, CIDRAP
    (Link to the original article)


    A second outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza in turkeys has been confirmed in Missouri, on a farm halfway across the state from the first outbreak.

    The second incident involves a farm housing 21,000 turkeys in the Moniteau County town of Fortuna in the central part of the state, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) said in a statement late yesterday. A day earlier, the agency had said preliminary test results indicated an outbreak there.

    In related news, federal officials said the H5N2 strain found on a Minnesota turkey farm last week matches an isolate from a wild duck in Washington state, and a Wisconsin center will be testing wild birds in the Midwest for the virus.

    Missouri outbreaks

    The first outbreak was in Asbury, in Jasper County near the state's southwestern corner, and involved a flock of 30,100 turkeys, the agency said. That outbreak was announced Mar 8.

    The Jasper County outbreak involved an H5N2 virus, the same subtype that surfaced on a Minnesota turkey farm last week and in wild birds and backyard poultry flocks in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho in the past few months. The virus is believed to be carried by wild birds, and the Minnesota outbreak marked its first appearance in the Mississippi Flyway.

    The MDA statement didn't list the virus strain in the second outbreak, but MDA spokeswoman Sarah Alsager confirmed to CIDRAP News this afternoon that it is H5N2.

    The MDA statement did not specify how many turkeys at the Fortuna farm were sick or died, but it said all surviving birds would be destroyed.

    Although H5N2 has not been known to cause illness in humans, the MDA said the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is monitoring workers who may have been exposed to the virus.

    MDA Director Richard Fordyce said 18 other poultry farms are within a 6.2-mile radius of the second outbreak, and tests so far have turned up no evidence of avian flu at those sites, according to an Associated Press (AP) report today.

    Minnesota virus matches Washington isolate

    In other developments, the H5N2 virus that hit a turkey farm in west-central Minnesota looks like a better than 99% match with an H5N2 isolate found in a northern pintail duck in Washington state last December, according to a report that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) filed with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

    The pintail duck was found in Whatcom County in northwestern Washington in mid-December. The county borders a part of southern British Columbia where several commercial poultry farms had been struck by H5N2 outbreaks a few weeks earlier.

    A partial genetic sequence of the Minnesota's virus's hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins showed more than 99% similarity to the pintail duck virus, USDA officials said in the OIE report, which is dated Mar 6.

    Midwest wild-bird testing

    Meanwhile, an expert with the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wis., said the center will be testing wild birds in the Midwest for the H5N2 virus. The strain has not been reported in any wild birds in the region to date.

    Hon Ip, PhD, MS, told CIDRAP News that the NWHC is asking that dead birds found in Minnesota and surrounding areas be submitted for testing. He was expecting to receive today a red-tailed hawk that was found in Olmsted County in southeastern Minnesota and would be testing it. Ip is a microbiologist and director of the NWHC's diagnostic virology laboratory.

    He noted that Olmsted County is far from the Minnesota outbreak site, but said, "Nevertheless, sometimes mortality samples are a great source for detecting these outbreaks. That's what we found in Washington. . . . It's worth reminding readers that raptors have been found to be infected with high path H5 viruses, and since that's the top of food chain, they may be an efficient way of monitoring for high-path viruses."

  • 03/03/2015:  A disease fatal to bats shows up in four southern Illinois counties, WSIU Public Broadcasting
    (Link to the original article)


    White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America, has been found in four new southern Illinois counties.

    Tests conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center found five bats submitted from Jackson, Union, Saline and Johnson counties were positive for the disease. These are the first confirmed records in these counties. The disease was first discovered in Illinois in 2013 in Pope, Hardin, Monroe and LaSalle counties.

    According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, white-nose syndrome is not known to affect people, pets, or livestock but is harmful or lethal to hibernating bats, killing 90 percent or more of some species of bats in caves where the fungus has persisted for a year or longer.

    For more information, visit: www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

  • 03/03/2015:  Illinois outdoors: four more counties have white-nose syndrome, Chicago Sun Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Four more counties in Illinois have confirmed white-nose syndrome in bats. It has killed millions of bats across North America. (Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service courtesy of Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation

    Here is the word from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources:

    White-Nose Syndrome Found in Four Additional Illinois Counties

    Disease That Has Killed Millions of Bats in North America Confirmed For First Time in Union, Saline, Johnson and Jackson Counties

    SPRINGFIELD White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America, has been found in four new Illinois counties. Tests conducted by the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin found five bats submitted from Union, Saline, Johnson, and Jackson Counties were positive for the disease. These are the first confirmed records in these counties. The disease was first discovered in Illinois in 2013 in Hardin, LaSalle, Monroe and Pope Counties.

    White-nose syndrome is not known to affect people, pets, or livestock but is harmful or lethal to hibernating bats, killing 90 percent or more of some species of bats in caves where the fungus has persisted for a year or longer, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    WNS is known to be transmitted primarily from bat to bat, but spores of Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the non-native fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, may be unintentionally carried between caves and abandoned mines by people on their clothing, footwear, and caving gear. The name of the disease refers to the white fungal growth often found on the noses of infected bats. To protect hibernating bats, including threatened and endangered species, all Illinois Department of Natural Resources-owned or managed caves have been closed to the public since 2010. In addition, all caves within the Shawnee National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, have been formally closed since 2009.

    White-nose syndrome was first detected in New York State in 2006 and has killed more than 5.7 million cave-dwelling bats in the eastern half of North America. Bats with WNS have been confirmed in 25 states and five Canadian provinces. White Nose Syndrome monitoring in Illinois is done in collaboration by University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Forest Service, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

    Bats play an important role in the environment, with individual bats preying on thousands of night-flying insects daily. Bats provide valuable insect pest control.

    For more information, visit: www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

  • 02/03/2015:  Woodside, Portola Valley: parasite is killing band-tailed pigeons, The Almanac
    (Link to the original article)


    Band-tailed pigeons in Woodside, Portola Valley, Los Gatos and Saratoga are dying. A parasite -- avian trichomoniasis -- is making its way through the band-tailed population, often through contaminated water in birdbaths, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    It's happening now because the pigeons, which are native to the West Coast, flock around this time of year, bringing them into close proximity with one another and making it convenient for the parasite to spread, said state wildlife biologist Krysta Rogers. Once infected, the band-tail quickly dies.

    Other bird species may encounter the parasite but not fall ill. Trichomoniasis is "fairly bird-species-specific," Ms. Rogers said.

    The band-tail pigeon is dark gray with bright yellow legs and beak and without the wide band of iridescent feathers that circle the neck of the city-dwelling rock pigeon.

    Recent reports of dead band-tails in Los Gatos and Portola Valley led the state to declare an outbreak, Ms. Rogers said. Why those two communities? They aren't exactly neighbors. "As the pigeon flies, they're close," she said.

    Birdbaths are suspected to be a transmission catalyst. The parasite lives in and may escape from band-tails' mouths when they drink, perhaps infecting other pigeons drinking the now-infected water, according to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, an agency of the U.S. Geological Survey.

    Birdbaths should be drained and not refilled, Ms. Rogers said, adding that feeding or providing water for wild birds, even in a drought, is a bad idea. It brings unfamiliar birds together and increases the likelihood of diseases spreading. "Wild birds are capable of finding food on their own. They can survive without handouts from people," she said.

    Band-tails avoid bird feeders in that they prefer acorns, particularly those of the coast live oak. The birds swallow them whole, she said.

    Feeding wild birds "comes with a lot of responsibility," she added. About twice a week, feeders and water containers should be thoroughly washed with soap and water and then decontaminated with a 10 percent bleach solution. Using the bleach without first washing the object will undermine the cleansing effect of the bleach.

    If you see a sick or dead bird in your yard, to break the disease cycle, you should stop feeding altogether for at least two weeks, Ms. Rogers said.

    One bird species believed to carry and spread the parasite while staying immune to its toxicity is the rock pigeon, that annoying orange-eyed denizen of sidewalks and ledges in cities around the world.

    If you see a rock pigeon in your yard, in the interest of "biological security," you should treat it as an unwelcome guest, particularly if you have chickens, she said.

  • 02/02/2015:  Avian cholera returns after decades, kills thousands of Nevada birds, Reno Gazette-Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    Thousands of birds have died at Walker Lake from a disease experts say hasn't made an appearance in Nevada in decades.

    An estimated 3,000 birds most of them American coots and ducks have died in an outbreak of avian cholera since early December in an event that still is unfolding. As many as 10 percent of Walker Lake's ducks may have died.

    "It is still an ongoing outbreak," said Peregrine Wolff, veterinarian for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

    The event marks the first time for an outbreak of avian cholera in Nevada since the 1980s, Wolff said.

    The highly infectious and quick-killing disease is unrelated to the avian flu that has spread among waterfowl in neighboring states and which experts said last Friday was found in a duck in Nevada's Lincoln County late in January. Avian cholera poses no threat to people or dogs.

    The Department of Wildlife was first notified by hunters in early December that they were finding dead ducks around Walker Lake. It was the wrong time of year for the most common culprit when it comes to Nevada bird die-offs, avian botulism, so experts suspected something else was responsible for a die-off that appeared fairly large in scale.

    "There's not a lot of things that kill a lot of birds quickly but avian cholera in one of them," Wolff said.

    Tests of bird carcasses conducted at the National Wildlife Health Center lab in Madison, Wis., revealed the birds had died of avian cholera.

    The outbreak likely started when infected ducks or geese flew to Walker Lake and mixed with other birds. Live bacteria is released into the environment from dead or dying birds and can quickly infect healthy ones. Infected birds die within two days but can expire in as little as six hours.

    "When an outbreak is going on, it often occurs when a lot of birds are concentrated in one area," Wolff said.

    About 1,000 dead birds have been picked up around the lake but the number killed is probably much larger because many dead birds are never seen, Wolff said. More than 700 were picked up last Friday along a seven-mile stretch of shore by a volunteer crew of Walker Lake area residents. The dead birds were buried in a landfill.

    "We need to take care of it because they don't have the manpower to do it," resident Sheri Samson said of the decision to help the Department of Wildlife by collecting carcasses.

    The die-off has resulted in an unsightly and smelly problem in a scenic place residents love to walk and otherwise enjoy themselves, Samson said.

    "It's an active beach area for all of us. It doesn't feel comfortable to walk our pets there," she said, adding that another cleanup is planned soon.

    The outbreak will likely have to play itself out over coming weeks until wintering birds fly away, Wolff said.

    "At this point, there's not much we can do except wait for the birds to start disbursing," Wolff said. "It's a concern because we will lose some birds, but it's only going to affect what's on the lake. Will it have a large population impact? Probably not."

    WALKER LAKE BIRD DIE-OFF

    Of the 706 dead birds collected last Friday, here is a breakdown:

    American coots: 546

    Mallards: 50

    Gadwells: 37

    Ruddy: 29

    Wigeons: 16

    Shovelers: 13

    Sea gulls: 12

    Bufflehead: 2

    Cormarant: 1

    Source: Nevada Department of Wildlife.

  • 01/27/2015:  Massive die-off of seabirds on West Coast baffles biologists, Sputnik
    (Link to the original article)


    Scientists are struggling to explain why thousands of small birds are washing up on to West Coast beaches, as mass mortality events in the maritime world are becoming more and more commonplace.

    Cassins auklets, named after businessman and naturalist John Cassin, are small diving birds, averaging about ten inches long and weighing about seven ounces, that mostly feed on plankton. As National Geographic describes, they look like small puffballs.

    The species total population, from the Baja Peninsula to Alaska, is between 1 and 3.5 million, according to a report by the magazine. But starting in late October, thousands of juvenile auklets started to wash ashore from Californias Farralon Islands to Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia.

    "This is just massive, massive, unprecedented," said Julia Parrish, a seabird ecologist from the University of Washington who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost two decades. "We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far."

    The mass auklet deaths are just part of what researchers are identifying as an enormous rise in the mortality of marine life worldwide. For the last two years sea stars have been subject to the gastrointestinal disease parvo, causing them to melt. Scientists initially suspected a link between sea star die-outs and the auklets, given that the two species share territory and food sources.

    But organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey have performed animal autopsies, or necropsies, on several of the Cassin's auklets, and have found no evidence of disease or trauma. The birds appear instead to have starved to death.

    "There's very little evidence of food in their GI tracts or stomachs," said Anne Ballmann, with USGS's National Wildlife Health Center.

    Some scientists arent at all surprised at the huge auklet death toll, as last summer they observed a huge upswing in birth rates. When auklets begin to fledge they compete for the same resources as adult populations. In other words, bird birth booms are often accompanied by massive die-offs.

    "You get some of this with seabirds every year," said David Nuzum, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "You get so many juveniles out there, and they've got this steep learning curve for feeding after being separated from their parents, so you always get a die-off in winter. But I've never seen anything like this, ever, and I've been here since 1985."

    No recent seabird die-off observed by the USGS since 1980 has even come close to the current one, with previous numbers topping out at under 11,000.

    Some experts are suggesting changes in water could be to blame for the auklets fate. Bill Sydeman of the Farallon Institute believes a massive blob of warm water that heated the North Pacific is the most likely culprit. The blob contributed to Californias current drought and to 2014 being the hottest year recorded. Its also made the marine environment less favorable for the flora and fauna that live there.

    If the plankton that makes up the auklets diet was unable to flourish as usual, the auklets would in turn fail to thrive.

    What is puzzling is that only the auklets seem to be dying out at an observably faster rate, while other animals with similar relationships to the food chain are not..

    "That's the thing that's so puzzling to uswe're just not seeing this with common murres or anything else," Parrish said.

    Sydeman predicts a kind of domino effect could be possible, wherein the dying might spread to the salmon and other fish that eat the same plankton species, and then to other birds that, in turn, eat those fish.

    "I think there's a strong possibility of it escalating to affect other species in the near future," he said.

  • 01/26/2015:  Use of MDx tests for animal health on the rise, but cost concerns present significant hurtle, genomeweb
    (Link to the original article)


    NEW YORK(GenomeWeb) Compared to molecular diagnostics developed for use on humans, the animal health MDx market is uniquely constrained by cost. With agricultural diagnostics in particular, patients are also inventory, and veterinary diagnostics labs must be ever aware of the bottom line.

    In recent interviews with GenomeWeb, industry and federal sources suggested that molecular methods remain on the rise in veterinary diagnostics labs. More US Department of Agriculture-licensed kits may be imminent, but test makers are also attempting to incorporate quality controls into assays while remaining on the analyte-specific reagent side of the regulatory fence.

    More molecular

    Use of molecular techniques, particularly PCR, has been increasing in veterinary diagnostics labs for a number of years, explained Beverly Schmitt, director of the Diagnostic Virology Lab at the US Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL), which is under the umbrella of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

    "I would say over the last 10 years the trend has definitely been toward using PCR, maybe even in lieu of virus isolation or culture," she said, noting however that this can depend on the pathogen and the subfield, and that other laboratory methods are still essential.

    Although there is increasing use of molecular, "The trend generally speaking in our industry is to drive more value for each sample that's being sent to the lab, and, while interrogating those samples, try to get as much information as possible at the lowest cost possible," said Martin Guillet, global head and general manager of animal health at Thermo Fisher.

    Panelization and automation are increasingly used, just as in the human MDx market, but the animal health industry is more fragmented, and each lab's testing volume tends to be smaller, Guillet said.

    Jeff Lorch is a research associate at the Department of Pathobiological Sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He conducts his work in collaboration with the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, an agency responsible for assessing wildlife and ecosystem health.

    The majority of samples submitted to NWHC are from wildlife die-off events, Lorch explained in an email to GenomeWeb. "We also assist with determining cause of death in endangered species, in certain legal cases, and other instances in which disease has the potential to impact wildlife populations and ecosystems," Lorch said. The NWHC also researches wildlife diseases, and assists with disease surveillance, "including diseases that can spill over from wildlife into humans and domestic animals," he said.

    For example, the NWHC recently helped identify the novel fungus responsible for a massive mortality event of hibernating bats, and developed molecular tests to help diagnose White-nose syndrome.

    It also was part of a coordinated effort to investigate a recent waterfowl die-off. Along with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the USDA, the lab found that the birds had died of an opportunistic fungal infection, but that some of them also had a highly pathogenic H5 strain of avian influenza. Specifically, H5N2 was found in northern pintail ducks and H5N8 in captive gyrfalcons that were fed wild birds killed by hunters. Just last week, an H5N1 reassortant strain was reported by the NWHC in a green-wing teal. That strain had segments identical to the gyrfalcon H5N8 as well as segments from North American low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses of wild bird origin.

    Monitoring wild bird flu can help prevent transmission to domesticated birds, and hopefully stave off another bird flu epidemic in theUS. To surveil wild animals with the USGS, "We are using more molecular assays than in years past," Lorch said, adding that it is likely "this will continue to increase in the next few years as more assays are developed and as molecular diagnostics continue to become more affordable."

    However, he asserted that in some scenarios, molecular assays will likely remain just a part of a more comprehensive molecular biology toolkit. "Particularly with novel wildlife diseases, or diseases about which little is known, other techniques including histopathology, pathogen isolation, and immunohistochemistry will remain essential for understanding pathology and making diagnoses," he said.

    Likewise, in many cases, assays for rare or novel pathogens affecting wildlife do not exist, Lorch said, and demand is low because there are few laboratories in the space. "Thus, we often have to develop assays ourselves or work with other labs that are investigating wildlife disease to design and share assays."

    Kits and QC

    Commercially available molecular assays are federally regulated. They can be sold as reagents, but can only be packaged into "kits" if they are USDA licensed.

    A licensed assay will include full protocols, internal positive controls, and describe the interpretation of the results. The assay is then called a kit. For sale and distribution in the US, assays that are not USDA licensed may not provide all of these elements performance data or validation, for example, can't be part of a product insert with assay reagents and a set of reagents can not be called a "kit" unless it has a USDA license. Interestingly, this rule does not always apply in international markets.

    Thermo Fisher makes four of the six molecular diagnostic kits with USDA licenses. There is currently "a big push" at the company to start validating assays and pursuing USDA licensing for more, Guillet said.

    "Kits come with an internal positive control built into those assays, so the lab can run their tests, look for the targets, and if they see the IPC rising in their PCR reaction and the target is not rising, then they can be sure that they're getting good results," he said.

    Tetracore, a maker of molecular diagnostics and immunoassays for both the human and animal health markets, has two USDA licensed kits, but has not pursued more. In the first part of this series, Bill Nelson, Tetracore Co-founder and CEO, explained that the cost of pursuing licensure must be made up later by sales. "From an economic standpoint, it is not necessarily a good proposal," he said. "It's a balancing act, and you hope over the long term you'll recoup that cost of getting the licensure versus selling an assay as a reagent."

    To enhance quality control, Thermo Fisher is also working with an industry association called The American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians a body overseeing standardization, quality assurance, and control to ensure labs are using methods, workflows, and protocols that they can rely on, so that "the vet has assurance that if he or she is sending samples to that lab that they'll get consistent results," Guillet said.

    Quality control is vital to other users as well. "The same attributes that make molecular assays so valuable can also cause issues when they are not used appropriately," Lorch noted. Many real-time PCR assays are so sensitive that they are prone to contamination and can yield false-positive results, he said. "The inclusion of numerous DNA extraction controls and PCR controls is essential to ensure accurate results and to make sure that assays are consistent across different reagents and platforms," he said, noting that in the wildlife testing domain they often rely on lab-developed tests rather than USDA licensed kits.

    Specificity of assays, lab-developed or otherwise, is another common issue, Lorch noted, because "standards for what constitutes rigorous screening of an assay, especially those that are not commercially available, are often poorly defined," Lorch said.

    Customer cost-cutting

    A persistent trend in the animal health industry seems to be strict attention to cost. Makers of molecular diagnostics for pigs or cows must match their pricing to the narrow profit margins of farmers and veterinary labs.

    Although clinicians in the human diagnostics space are embracing pooled nucleic acid testing more and more for HIV testing and assays of nasopharyngeal swabs, for example pooling samples is even more common in the veterinary diagnostics world.

    Pigs can contract a virus called porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, or PRRS, and Tetracore makes an assay for PRRS that can detect virus from saliva samples. Nelson explained that end users often pool these samples using a rope.

    Essentially, a farmer or veterinarian ties a short length of rope to the side of the pig pen. "Say a pen has got 25 pigs in it, they'll all come over and chew on that rope, it becomes a game for them," Nelson said. Samples of this rope are then used for viral extraction, and, if there is a positive result, more detailed testing can be done.

    Likewise, for Tetracore's other USDA licensed test for Johne's disease, diagnosticians often use pooled fecal samples.

    "Basically a large portion of molecular testing is massive screening for transportation and for security you're trying to make sure your herd is clear and free of the disease," Nelson said. At least for agricultural diagnostics, "There aren't a lot of things that they're necessarily testing individual animals for," he said.

    The future of animal MDx

    Still, at some labs cutting-edge molecular biology is sometimes more important than cost-cutting. Like their counterparts in the human MDx universe, veterinary diagnostics labs are also adopting next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics to identify pathogens, particularly in cases of mystery mass die-offs.

    At the NVSL, Schmitt says they use Ion Torrent technology and also have MiSeq on campus.

    "What I think is going to happen, and what I think everybody else is seeing, is that the veterinary diagnostics labs, just like with the uptake of PCR, will move toward doing next-gen sequencing of clinical samples," she said. "They're already doing that and we have done it also particularly if you suspect a certain family of viruses. We've also used next-gen sequencing to detect unknowns," she said.

    Given this trend, Schmitt suggested that one of the issues labs are going to have to work through in the future is "the IT component of that having the bioinformatics on site to crunch that information and to look at trends, and combining that with epidemiology of a disease," in order to get a better picture of what's going on in the field. Thus, labs may soon need more staff with "some sort of training in bioinformatics to be able to interpret that sequencing information or put it into phylogenetic trees," Schmitt said.

    Meanwhile, at the USGS, Lorch said he primarily uses PCR assays for molecular work. These vary from conventional and real-time PCR tests for specific pathogens, to 'DNA barcoding' for fungi or bacteria. He said the lab does follow-up DNA sequencing after barcoding to confirm the identity of a microorganism, and also uses NGS for pathogen discovery work.

    So-called "penside" molecular testing is also being developed for a few animal pathogens, such as a point-of- care porcine epidemic diarrhea virus test in the works from Lucigen.

    Thermo Fisher is also contemplating developing these. "We're looking into it for sure," Guillet said. "There's no doubt that the technology is heading that way. In our case it's more in terms of epidemiological surveillance, for example for migratory birds that we keep an eye on," he said.

    But end users seem uncertain about how useful penside molecular tests may ultimately be.

    "There's been a lot of development in regards to some foreign animal diseases," particularly for penside immunoassays, Schmitt said, but added, "generally, still, most of the samples are collected on the farm and then they go to a veterinary diagnostic lab."

    Schmitt noted that penside molecular testing might be most useful for illnesses called foreign animal diseases. These are pathogens that can wipe out herds, but have either been kept out or controlled within theUS.

    For these pathogens, "It would be very useful to know right away so that you can restrict movements and respond to trying to eradicate the disease."

    There are also avian influenza molecular tests that can be run in the field literally but they are still more often used in the lab, where the expertise resides, Schmitt said. In addition, higher test volumes are easier to run on high-throughput systems, and often vets do not need to know "within five seconds" whether a particular disease is present.

    At the USDA's CVB, Byron Rippke said he believes that one way or another, there will likely be more molecular tests for animal health soon, and more of those will be USDA licensed.

    "I honestly think that with all the funding that has been poured into research on rapid diagnostics that we're at the leading edge of commercialization of a lot of those technologies," Rippke said. "I think there's going to be a fairly significant uptick in molecular-based diagnostic assays in the next few years," he said.

  • 01/15/2015:  Avian flu found in wild mallard at Fern Ridge, OR, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
    (Link to the original article)


    SALEM, Ore.--Avian influenza strain HPAI H5N2 has been found in a mallard harvested by a hunter at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area near Eugene, Ore. The virus strain, known as H5N2, poses no immediate threat to human health. It has been circulating in Europe and East Asia and has not made people sick.

    The female mallard was sampled Dec. 20, 2014 as part of routine testing by ODFW, USDA/APHIS, USGS and USFWS. Testing for high path avian influenza is done at several labs including the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Corvallis. However, further confirmation regarding the strain of bird flu virus requires special testing at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

    ODFW was notified of positive test results for the HPAI H5N2 found in the Fern Ridge mallard yesterday. It is the same strain that was detected in a pintail duck in northwestern Washington state last month.

    The strain has not caused noticeable disease for Oregons wild waterfowl, which have evolved with the virus and usually do not get sick. The mallard did not show signs of sickness and there have been no reports of any recent waterfowl die-offs related to avian influenza anywhere in North America.

    This detection follows a December detection of another avian influenza strain, HPAI H5N8, in backyard poultry near Winston, Ore. It marks the second highly pathogenic avian influenza virus identified in Oregon.

    The detection is not a surprise for wildlife managers. After seeing initial results from other states, we suspected the HPAI strains (H5N2 and H5N8) would be found in wild waterfowl in Oregon, said Brandon Reishus, ODFW migratory bird coordinator. California has also documented the virus in waterfowl and it has been found as far west as Davis County, Utah.

    This time of year, migratory waterbirds (ducks, geese, shorebirds) are on wintering areas throughout the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Alaska to South America. In the coming months these birds will migrate back to nesting areas to the north, potentially spreading the virus to new areas. Wild birds can pass the influenza virus to their species or other bird species inhabiting shared wetlands or through predator and prey interactions.

    While this strain often does not sicken waterfowl, it may be a threat to falcons and hawks, which can exhibit symptoms and die. ODFW is advising falconers to refrain from hunting wild waterfowl or feeding their birds wild waterfowl meat or organ tissue. More information is available at ODFWs falconry webpage. Oregon has 130 licensed falconers.

    Wildlife managers will continue to test wild birds in Oregon for avian influenza. For more information on avian influenza in wild birds, visit USGS National Wildlife Health Center.

    http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/avian_influenza/

    Hunters: practice safe bird handling

    The strain of avian influenza found in Oregon and other western states is no immediate threat to human health. But hunters should always practice safe bird handling and cooking techniques:

    Wear rubber or latex gloves when handling and cleaning game birds.

    Do not eat, drink, smoke or touch your face when handling birds.

    Keep the game bird and its juices away from other foods.

    Thoroughly clean knives and any other equipment or surfaces that touch birds. Use a solution of one third cup of chlorine bleach per one gallon of water.

    Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling birds (or with alcohol-based hand products if your hands are not visibly soiled).

    Cook all game meat thoroughly (up to at least 165 F) to kill disease organisms and parasites. Use a food thermometer to ensure the inside of the bird has reached at least 165 F.

    Upland bird and waterfowl (duck, goose) hunting seasons are open through Jan. 25, 2015 in Oregon. Goose hunting is also open in parts of the state during late January, February and March.

    Danger to domestic poultry

    This strain of the flu (H5N2) is deadly to domestic birds (chickens, turkeys, Guinea fowl). The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) strongly encourages backyard poultry producers to prevent contact between their birds and wild birds. Any sick domestic birds should be reported to the State Veterinarians office at 1-800-347-7028 or USDA at 1-866-536-7593.

    ODFW is part of the State of Oregons multi-agency response to highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza, along with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Health Authority and the US Department of Agricultures Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS).

  • 01/15/2015:  Some Bat Colonies Might Be Beating White-Nose Syndrome, Smithsonian.com
    (Link to the original article)


    Since white nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in the winter of 2007-2008, the fungus has killed millions of insect-eating bats in the U.S. and Canada. Pseudogymnoascus destructans infections pushes bats metabolism into overdrive. Infected bats use twice as much energy while they try to hibernate than healthy bats. That disruption can burn through the little animals fat stores and kill them before spring comes, new research shows.

    Just knowing that, though, is one reason to see more than doom in the bats' future.

    "We now have a framework for understanding how the disease functions within a bat, Michelle Verant, a study author and researcher at the University of Wisconsin and USGS National Wildlife Health Center scientist, says in a statement. With that understanding, researchers can figure out how to help the bats survive.

    Even without our aid, it seems some bat populations are still hanging on by a toe-hold. Brian Mann for NPR reports that one Vermont cave, after years of carnage, still has resident bats.

    "It's a little bit of a curveball to be here today, six years after being here and seeing all the dead bats, to think that there are still bats in there," says Jonathan Reichard, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    He feared that this disease might exterminate the animals, sweeping them from large parts of North America. "The declines in that species have slowed down or even reversed in some cases. There's evidence that colonies may even be increasing at a slight tick," Reichard says.

    That cave isnt the only one seeing a slight increase after years of decline. Researchers are hopeful that the trends are now changing, but still need more data, writes Jane J. Lee for National Geographic.

    Saving the bats is a worthwhile endeavor, not only because they keep populations of pesky insects in check, but because the flying mammals can tell us a lot about evolution and disease transmission. Theres much to investigate. Bats have specialized brain cells that help them orient as they fly, they are surprisingly long-lived for such small critters and they are strangely immune to many viruses, writes Natalie Angier for the New York Times:

    Bat experts argue that a keener understanding of bat biology could not only help prevent the next outbreak of Ebola or other cross-species zoonotic infection, but also offer a fresh take on immune and inflammatory disorders like diabetes or heart disease.

    For example, a recent analysis of bat genomes shows a surprisingly high number of genes that fix damaged DNA. Bats could have ramped up those repair mechanisms to deal with the excess DNA-damaging free radicals produced by bats energy-intensive flight. Angier writes that "countering DNA damage happens to be a great strategy for overall health, which could explain bats exceptional longevity and apparent resistance to cancer." Very few bat tumors have ever been found, she notes.

    Still, if bats or humans dont figure out how to combat the white-nose plague, well never get a chance to fully unlock the flying mammals secrets.

  • 01/15/2015:  Researchers wait for answers amid mysterious mass seabird die-off in region, Peninsula Daily News
    (Link to the original article)


    PORT TOWNSEND Researchers hope that necropsies this week will reveal the cause of a dramatic increase in the number of dead or starving Cassin's auklets appearing on regional beaches.

    According to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) at the University of Washington, more than 700 dead auklets were discovered on beaches in northern Washington in December, a figure 128 times normal levels.

    This represents a rapid increase over October when mortality was 17 times more than normal and November, which saw death rates 56 times higher than normal, according to COASST seabird program coordinator Jane Dolliver.

    Birds were sent to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for necropsies with results expected as early as Friday.

    Earlier test results from birds gathered in California did not point to viruses or bacteria, ruling out the avian flu as the cause of the die-off, according to Dolliver.

    The Cassin's auklet is a zooplankton-eating seabird that breeds from Alaska to Baja California with an estimated population of 3.5 million, according to COASST.

    Since October, the small, white-bellied gray birds have washed ashore in unprecedented numbers on beaches between British Columbia and Central California.

    While the majority of the deaths have been on Pacific Ocean beaches, Heidi Pedersen, citizen science coordinator with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, said some dead birds have been noted on Peninsula beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    She did not have specific numbers for those deaths Monday, but did say they were not as numerous as those on the Pacific beaches.

    Cynthia Daily, operator of the nonprofit Discovery Bay Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center in Port Townsend has already taken in six starving Cassin's auklets this year, but three have died. Several of the birds were brought in from Neah Bay.

    Two of the three remaining are rehabilitated and ready for release, but Daily is waiting until the spring because there is no food out there.

    People are going to find these birds on the beach and might not know what to do, Daily said.

    I want the public to know they can bring them here, and we will take care of them until they are ready for release and the food supply has come back.

    Dolliver said that the reason for the massive die-off is the $3 million question, but she feels that it has to do with more than just a shortage of food.

    If it was only a lack of food, then more species would be affected, although it could have something with their inability to get food, she said.

    It's normal for some seabirds to die during harsh winter conditions, especially during big storms, but the scale of the current die-off is unusual, researchers say, speculating it could be the result of a successful breeding season leading to too many young birds competing for food.

    Unusually violent storms might be pushing the birds into areas they're not used to or preventing them from foraging, or a warmer, more acidic ocean could be affecting the supply of tiny zooplankton, such as krill, that the birds eat.

    Daily is affiliated with the Northwest Raptor & Wildlife Center in Sequim, working cooperatively to rescue and rehabilitate the birds.

    The auklets will end up with Daily since the other facility concentrates on raptors and because I just bought $800 worth of fish.

    With some new construction, Daily said she can accommodate as many auklets as needed.

    I'll make room, she said.

    If I need to house 50 birds, I'll just put them in one of the big cages.

    Dolliver said the highest concentration of dead auklets appeared on central Washington's Pacific beaches, numbering 563 birds per square kilometer.

    Those discovering a quantity of dead birds locally don't need to report the situation as COASST has a network of more than 80 volunteers monitoring North Olympic Peninsula beaches, Dolliver said.

    Almost all of the auklets found on the beaches are dead, and Daily said she is not aware of any live auklet rescues on the Northern Olympic Peninsula since the die-off began.

    While the inclination for anyone who finds an immobile bird might be to leave it alone or put it back in the water, a rescue is the recommended path, according to Jaye Moore, Northwest Raptor & Wildlife Center director.

    If people find a bird they should put it in a warm, quiet place and give us a call, Moore said.

    They should put them in a shoebox or someplace safe and warm them up so they don't need to be cold while they are waiting for care.

    Moore said that many people who find a beached bird are heading back to another location and pass through Sequim or Port Townsend, facilitating dropping off a bird in need of help.

    For those who are traveling elsewhere, a pickup can be arranged.

    Daily said that any beached bird's feathers have lost their natural waterproof properties, so leaving the bird on the beach or putting it into the water will lead to its death.

    Even if a bird appears healthy, Daily's first order of business is to restore the bird's waterproofing. This is accomplished by cleaning any contaminants out of its feathers, sometimes with dishwashing soap.

    This process to restore the feathers can take three weeks, Daily said.

    To restore the waterproofing, Daily cleans the birds repeatedly and puts them under a dryer.

    Daily said she knew last year that it would be a rough winter for the auklets because of predictions of a diminishing food supply, which is why she decided to keep the two healthy birds through the winter.

    For more information or to report a bird in distress, phone Daily at 360-379-0802. She will then provide further instructions for care.

    To reach the Northwest Raptor & Wildlife Center in Sequim, phone 360-681-2283.

  • 01/15/2015:  First Oregon wild duck tests positive for avian flu, KTVZ.com
    (Link to the original article)


    SALEM, Ore.- A wild duck shot by a hunter in the Willamette Valley is the first wild bird in Oregon to test positive for avian flu since the disease showed up recently in Washington.

    The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said Wednesday the female mallard was taken Dec. 20 at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area outside Eugene and was tested as part of a program initiated since avian flu appeared in Washington.

    Department veterinarian Colin Gillin says avian flu poses no risk to people or wild waterfowl, but can kill domestic poultry.

    ---

    ODFW news release:

    Avian flu found in wild mallard at Fern Ridge

    No human health risk but falcons, hawks may be susceptible to virus

    SALEM, Ore.--Avian influenza strain HPAI H5N2 has been found in a mallard harvested by a hunter at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area near Eugene, Ore. The virus strain, known as H5N8, poses no immediate threat to human health. It has been circulating in Europe and East Asia and has not made people sick.

    The female mallard was sampled Dec. 20, 2014 as part of routine testing by ODFW, USDA/APHIS, USGS and USFWS. Testing for high path avian influenza is done at several labs including the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Corvallis. However, further confirmation regarding the strain of bird flu virus requires special testing at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

    ODFW was notified of positive test results for the HPAI H5N2 found in the Fern Ridge mallard yesterday. It is the same strain that was detected in a pintail duck in northwestern Washington state last month.

    The strain has not caused noticeable disease for Oregons wild waterfowl, which have evolved with the virus and usually do not get sick. The mallard did not show signs of sickness and there have been no reports of any recent waterfowl die-offs related to avian influenza anywhere in North America.

    This detection follows a December detection of another avian influenza strain, HPAI H5N8, in backyard poultry near Winston, Ore. It marks the second highly pathogenic avian influenza virus identified in Oregon.

    The detection is not a surprise for wildlife managers. After seeing initial results from other states, we suspected the HPAI strains (H5N2 and H5N8) would be found in wild waterfowl in Oregon, said Brandon Reishus, ODFW migratory bird coordinator. California has also documented the virus in waterfowl and it has been found as far west as Davis County, Utah.

    This time of year, migratory waterbirds (ducks, geese, shorebirds) are on wintering areas throughout the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Alaska to South America. In the coming months these birds will migrate back to nesting areas to the north, potentially spreading the virus to new areas. Wild birds can pass the influenza virus to their species or other bird species inhabiting shared wetlands or through predator and prey interactions.

    While this strain often does not sicken waterfowl, it may be a threat to falcons and hawks, which can exhibit symptoms and die. ODFW is advising falconers to refrain from hunting wild waterfowl or feeding their birds wild waterfowl meat or organ tissue. More information is available at ODFWs falconry webpage. Oregon has 130 licensed falconers.

    Wildlife managers will continue to test wild birds in Oregon for avian influenza. For more information on avian influenza in wild birds, visit USGS National Wildlife Health Center.

    http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/avian_influenza/

    Hunters: practice safe bird handling

    The strain of avian influenza found in Oregon and other western states is no immediate threat to human health. But hunters should always practice safe bird handling and cooking techniques:

    Wear rubber or latex gloves when handling and cleaning game birds.

    Do not eat, drink, smoke or touch your face when handling birds.

    Keep the game bird and its juices away from other foods.

    Thoroughly clean knives and any other equipment or surfaces that touch birds. Use a solution of one third cup of chlorine bleach per one gallon of water.

    Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling birds (or with alcohol-based hand products if your hands are not visibly soiled).

    Cook all game meat thoroughly (up to at least 165 F) to kill disease organisms and parasites. Use a food thermometer to ensure the inside of the bird has reached at least 165 F.

    Upland bird and waterfowl (duck, goose) hunting seasons are open through Jan. 25, 2015 in Oregon. Goose hunting is also open in parts of the state during late January, February and March.

    Danger to domestic poultry

    This strain of the flu (H5N2) is deadly to domestic birds (chickens, turkeys, Guinea fowl). The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) strongly encourages backyard poultry producers to prevent contact between their birds and wild birds. Any sick domestic birds should be reported to the State Veterinarians office at 1-800-347-7028 or USDA at 1-866-536-7593.

    ODFW is part of the State of Oregons multi-agency response to highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza, along with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Health Authority and the US Department of Agricultures Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS).

    For information on avian influenza in domestic birds, visit ODAs website: http://bit.do/ORbirdflu

  • 01/13/2015:  No Time for Bats to Rest Easy, The New York Times
    (Link to the original article)


    LEWISBURG, PA. The 10 hibernating little brown bats hang from a corner of their tailor-made refrigeration chamber at Bucknell University like a clump of old potato skins, only less animated. In torpor, bats become one with their wintry surroundings, their body temperatures falling to just above freezing, their heart rates slowing to one or two beats a minute, their breathing virtually undetectable.

    But suddenly, a male yanks himself free of the bunch and hops down to a dish on the floor. After taking a long, slow drink of water, the bat uses the claws on his folded wings to hoist himself along the wire mesh of the chamber, his motions angular, deliberative and spidery. A second bat rappels down for a drink, and then a third.

    Well, thats a lucky break, said Thomas Lilley, a tall and crisply composed postdoctoral fellow from Finland. Multiple rounds of bat drama.

    As Bucknells de facto bat concierge, Dr. Lilley helps wild bats acclimate to life in captivity, a difficult task with an urgent spur. He and his colleagues are laboring mightily to understand white-nose syndrome, a devastating fungal disease that has killed at least six million North American bats since it first appeared in Albany a decade ago and that threatens to annihilate some bat species entirely.

    Because the fungus attacks bats as they hibernate in caves, the researchers are exploring the complex biology of normal bat hibernation, and so-called arousal bouts turn out to be a big part of the puzzle, said Kenneth Field, an associate professor of biology.

    Hibernating bats will warm themselves out of torpor every week or two throughout the winter, for several hours at a stretch. Though researchers dont yet understand the reasons for the thermal interludes, they have quantified just how important such thaws must be to bat survival.

    All the work that bats do during the fall, feeding nonstop and putting on fat until theyre like butterballs on wings, and 90 percent is spent to sustain the winter warm-ups, said DeAnn Reeder, a professor of biology and one of the nations leading bat ecologists.

    New research suggests that white-nose syndrome begins disrupting the arousal-torpor cycle long before any telltale white fuzz appears on the bats face and wings, and that the disorder really spins out of control when the bats immune system behaves in a distinctly unbatlike manner, mounting a zealous response against the fungal spores.

    Unbatlike because, as scientists are discovering, the bat immune system is astonishingly tolerant of most pathogens a trait that could pose risks to people, but that also offers clues to preventing human diseases of aging, including cancer.

    Evidence is mounting that bats can serve as reservoirs of many of the worlds deadliest viruses, including the pathogens behind Ebola, Marburg and related hemorrhagic fevers; acute respiratory syndromes like SARS and MERS; and even familiar villains like measles and mumps.

    Yet bats appear largely immune to the many viruses they carry and rarely show signs of the diseases that will rapidly overwhelm any human, monkey, horse, pig or other mammalian host the microbes manage to infiltrate.

    Continue reading the main story

    Scientists have also learned that bats live a seriously long time for creatures of their small size. The insectivorous Brandts bat of Eurasia, for example, weighs an average of just six grams, compared with 20 grams for a mouse. But while a mouse is lucky to live for a year, the Brandts bat can survive well into its 40s a disparity between life span and body mass that a report in Nature Communications called the most extreme of all mammals.

    Bats may be girded against cancer, too. At this stage, the evidence is anecdotal, said Lin-Fa Wang, a bat virologist at the Duke-NUS Graduate School in Singapore and the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong. But of all the bat biologists Ive spoken with, Ive only heard of one or two cases of bat tumors.

    Researchers are scrutinizing bat DNA and the details of the bat vocation for clues to what sets the flying mammals apart from other members of the lactating clade. Preliminary findings indicate that bats apparent indifference to the viral throngs they harbor, together with their Methuselah-grade longevity, probably arose from the adaptations needed to grant them the power of flight.

    Bat experts argue that a keener understanding of bat biology could not only help prevent the next outbreak of Ebola or other cross-species zoonotic infection, but also offer a fresh take on immune and inflammatory disorders like diabetes or heart disease.

    Scientists warn against misguided calls in some areas for the culling of bats as a way to combat the risk of viral transmission, and they urge the public not to succumb to old-fashioned bat phobia that long linked bats to witches, vampires, demons and cobwebs.

    Bats play essential roles in the environment, researchers said. Insectivorous bats are the top predators of night-flying insects, including mosquitoes: Dr. Reeder estimated that for every million bats killed by white-nose syndrome, 692 tons of insects go undevoured each summer. Fruit- and nectar-eating bats are major pollinators and seed dispersers.

    A politician in Australia said, Bomb the bats, Dr. Wang said. But if you do that, youll destroy the ecosystem and then youll get more infectious disease, not less. The risks from wanton batricide could well be immediate: Recent research suggests that bats are likeliest to shed viral particles when they are under stress and their numbers are shrinking.

    Besides, wherever you go, there they are. With some 1,200 species under the Chiroptera trademark, bats are the second-most populous mammalian order, after rodents. One in every five mammals is a bat, Dr. Reeder said.

    Theyre found on every continent but Antarctica and range in size from the Kittis hog-nosed bat which at an inch long vies with the Etruscan shrew for the title of worlds smallest mammal to the giant golden-crowned flying fox, with a wingspan approaching six feet and a soulful face that Raina Plowright, an infectious disease ecologist and bat expert at Montana State University, likened to that of a puppy dog.

    Scientists traditionally have divided bats into two big suborders: the fruit-eating megabats and insect-eating microbats, deeming the groups so distinct they might have evolved flight independently.

    Yet a recent genomic analysis in the journal Science reveals that the ability to fly dates to the earliest days of the bat lineage, some 90 million years ago, and that megas did not split from micros for another 10 million years, after which the micros alone evolved the capacity for echolocation, to help them hunt their insect prey.

    The new study also described other important traits that bats of both suborders share. For one thing, researchers found an unexpected concentration of genes involved in repairing damaged DNA. Those fix-it factors, the scientists proposed, are the bats solution to the blistering demands of flight.

    When a bat flies, its heart beats an impressive 1,000 times a minute, and its metabolism ramps up 15-fold over resting rate. By contrast, said David Blehert of the United States Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., the metabolism of a running rodent is seven times normal, and thats only for a short burst, whereas a bat can fly at 15-fold metabolic rate for hours.

    All that fiery flapping ends up generating a huge number of metabolic byproducts called free radicals, which could mutilate the bats DNA were it not for its extra-strength molecular repair crew. And countering DNA damage happens to be a great strategy for overall health, which could explain bats exceptional longevity and apparent resistance to cancer.

    Other clues to bat exceptionalism can be found in its molecular profile. Immune factors that serve as the bodys first responders have been ramped up, while immune molecules that in most mammals turn aggressive at later stages of an infection are damped down in bats.

    As a result, Dr. Wang said, when a virus comes in, bats are very efficient at handling it, but they dont overreact. And the overreaction of the bodys immune system, scientists have found, often proves far more dangerous than the viral infection itself.

    Researchers suggest that changes to the bats immune system originated as part of the heightened demand for DNA repair, and later proved valuable for its general life strategy.

    Bats often live in colonies of hundreds of thousands. They travel long distances and are exposed to a staggering array of pathogens. They cannot afford to be flustered by every freeloading microbe, and for the most part, they do not.

    That makes the lethality of white-nose syndrome that much more confounding. Here we have an animal that can survive some of the scariest viruses we know, Dr. Blehert said, and its undone by a common soil fungus.

    He and his colleagues have found that, starting at the earliest stages of infection, afflicted hibernating bats begin burning twice as much energy as unaffected bats. Dr. Reeder and her colleagues have shown that bats with white-nose come out of hibernation twice as often as healthy bats.

    And while normal bats spend much of their arousal time resting, sick bats dont, she said. Instead, theyre grooming constantly, so their arousals are even more costly. The ultimate blow may come from the bats immune response to the fungus, which preliminary evidence suggests is unusually strong.

    And that, Dr. Field said, could be whats dooming the bats.

  • 01/13/2015:  How White-Nose Syndrome Kills Bats, CBC Radio
    (Link to the original article)


    White-nose Syndrome has killed an estimated 6-million bats in North America, since it was first identified in 2006. The disease is named for the distinctive fungal infection around the muzzle and on the wings of hibernating bats. Scientists suspected that white-nose syndrome kills bats by increasing their energy demands during the hibernation period. This has now been confirmed in a new study by Dr. Michelle Verant from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In an experiment, the amount of energy used by infected bats was found to be twice as high as that of healthy hibernating bats. Extra energy is used through frequent arousal during hibernation, as well as a disruption of heat regulation caused by the damaged wings.

  • 01/13/2015:  Mapping White-Nose Syndromes Lethal Course in Bats, Science Friday
    (Link to the original article)


    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that white-nose syndrome has killed 5.7 to 6.7 million bats in North America since it was first documented in 2006. Reporting in BMC Physiology, microbiologist David Blehert mapped out how the disease runs its course. He describes how the disease physically affects the bats and leads to death, and how this insight can provide more clues to stopping the outbreak.

  • 01/13/2015:  Madison lab finds rare avian flu in ducks from Washington state, Outdoor News
    (Link to the original article)


    Waterfowl hunters will probably have something new to consider this fall, based on findings of avian flu in wild ducks in the Pacific Flyway.

    In December, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison found a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in several ducks from the state of Washington.

    This was very surprising, because weve never detected a highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild waterfowl in the U.S. before, said Dr. Valerie Shearn-Bochsler, pathologist at the lab.

    Pathologists regularly detect low pathogenic viruses in waterfowl, which do not pose any threat.

    HPAI was found when checking dead waterfowl from a die-off involving more than 100 ducks at Wiser Lake in far northwestern Washington near the town of Lynden in Whatcom County. The ducks died from eating moldy silage.

    But in conducting necropsies, biologists unexpectedly found H5N2, a mixture of an Asian and North American virus.

    Eventually, Shearn-Bochsler and diagnostic virologist Dr. Hon Ip, at the lab in Madison, found H5N8 in a falcon that fed on a dead duck. That strain was also later found in a domestic flock of guinea fowl in Oregon and a duck harvested by a hunter in California.

    Though these are not the H5N1 virus that has killed people and domestic fowl in Asia, health authorities are concerned, especially since waterfowl migrate and could spread the HPAI throughout the flyway.

    Though these strains are not known to have infected people, hunters are cautioned to: not pick up what appears to be sick waterfowl; clean waterfowl using disposable latex gloves; and cook meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

    This virus has not been found in Wisconsin, but waterfowl hunters can expect to hear more this fall.

  • 01/13/2015:  Bat disease laying waste to population, The Columbia Dispatch
    (Link to the original article)


    What once were sanctuaries have become tombs for millions of North Americas bats.

    Caves and mines in which generations of overwintering bats massed to hibernate have become chambers of death, transformed by a lethal fungus likely brought from European caves on the boots and shoes of humans who didnt know better.

    Likely, nobody could have known better, though humans long have carried microbial baggage that sometimes alters the natural order when delivered to a new place.

    Through last winter, white-nose syndrome it takes its name from the grizzled muzzle of animals in the advanced stages of infection had killed an estimated 5.7 million New World bats since its discovery in upstate New York during the winter of 2006-07. The federal National Wildlife Health Center estimated that 80 percent of the Northeast bat population has been wiped out.

    The bats of Europe and Asia apparently have evolved to co-exist, however tentatively, with Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus behind white-nose syndrome. Bat ubiquity in Europe, it should be noted, doesnt approach that of North America.

    They never did have the big bat populations we have here, said Jennifer Norris, wildlife biologist and resident bat expert for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

    Perhaps, she said, the fungus has not allowed the European bat population to expand, though something else might be at work. At any rate, the syndrome threatens to make the New World look a lot more like the Old when it comes to bats.

    The bats of North America, never having encountered the fungus, have no defense against it. Consequently, where the fungus shows up, bats die in some cases all, or almost all, of them.

    A winter den, whether it be a mine or cave, is known as a hibernaculum. Ohios previously most populated hibernacula, the biggest a closed limestone mine in Preble County near the Indiana border west of Dayton, and the second a shuttered mine in Lawrence County near Ohios southern tip, might be characterized as disaster areas.

    Last winter, we noted that the largest of the hibernacula showed an 85 percent decline in bats, and the other a 99.9 percent decline, Norris said.

    Having witnessed 35,000 bats hibernating on the ceiling at the Preble County site, Norris described as overwhelming a post-syndrome winter visit when only about 4,000 bats were present.

    Going into the current winter, 18 Ohio counties were known to hold hibernacula where the syndrome is present. Dead bats in three additional counties have been found this winter, and though it seems likely that white-nose syndrome is involved, tests are not completed, Norris said.

    Ohio is among 25 states and five Canadian provinces in which white-nose syndrome has been found in hibernating bats. Early indicators suggest the lethality of the disease might be tempered where winters are milder, possibly because of how the syndrome kills.

    Suspected for several years and recently confirmed in a study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin, white-nose syndrome cant be said to kill directly. Instead, the fungus prematurely awakens hibernating bats, speeding up their metabolism and causing them to use twice the energy they normally would. As a result, the infected bats deplete the fat stores they need to survive until spring.

    Bat bodies sometimes are found around the entrances of infected hibernacula, suggesting some of the awakened bats attempt a futile winter search for the insects on which they feed.

    Further, the study showed that the fungus, at early stages of infection, can change the chemical balance of the blood, altering pH levels and boosting potassium, which can lead to heart problems.

    Bats arent built to bounce back from plagues. Among smaller animals, they are fairly long-lived at 14 to 19 years, depending on species. Being long-lived, bats arent particularly fecund such as, say, a rodent might be. A female bat raises a single pup each year.

    Particularly vulnerable are bat species, such as the endangered Indiana bats found in Ohio, that already have lost numbers as they hang on in shrinking forest habitat depleted by humans. More species likely will be designated as threatened or endangered come spring, Norris said.

    The loss of bats isnt just natures loss, she said. Bats, which feed from dusk until dawn, are among the most effective devourers of flying insects.

    Depending on the study cited, bats provide U.S. agriculture with between $4 billion and $50 billion in insect suppression services annually, the National Wildlife Health Center reports.

    They do wonders in suburban backyards, as well.

  • 01/13/2015:  Good News For Bats! Things Are Looking Up For Stemming Disease Spread, National Public Radio
    (Link to the original article)


    The bat disease known as white-nose syndrome has been spreading fast, killing millions of animals. But for the first time, scientists are seeing hopeful signs that some bat colonies are recovering and new breakthroughs could help researchers develop better strategies for helping bats survive.

    Back in 2009, it seemed dire. In Vermont, the floor of the Aeolus Cave in the Green Mountains was carpeted with tiny bat bodies and their delicate bones. Scientists like Scott Darling with Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department were shaken by the carnage.

    "This is just far more than I expected. It's way more, so many more dead bats here," Darling said then.

    Scientists say a quarter-million animals have died here since white-nose syndrome was first identified in 2007, many of their tiny faces crusted with the white fungus that gives this disease its name. But on a recent trip to the cave, bats are still living here, though the population is much smaller.

    Jonathan Reichard, national assistant coordinator for white-nose syndrome for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was part of a team that recently caught and inspected bats at Aeolus Cave.

    "It's a little bit of a curveball to be here today, six years after being here and seeing all the dead bats, to think that there are still bats in there," Reichard says.

    He feared that this disease might exterminate the animals, sweeping them from large parts of North America. "The declines in that species have slowed down or even reversed in some cases. There's evidence that colonies may even be increasing at a slight tick," Reichard says.

    There's other good news. While researchers study the tough little holdouts here in Vermont, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin has been cracking the code on how exactly white-nose syndrome kills these animals. The study's lead author, Michelle Verant, says the fungus causes bats' bodies to overheat, burning energy too quickly.

    "The amount of fat energy that bats affected with white-nose syndrome used was twice as much as the healthy bats," she says.

    Verant says hibernating bats begin to starve. Some flee into the deadly cold searching for more food.

    She thinks her work, funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, could help point the way toward helping more bats survive. Scientists are scrambling to develop targeted fungicides that might kill white nose outright. In the meantime, Verant says wildlife managers need to make sure bats are healthy and plump before they go into the caves for the winter.

    "The best thing that we can do right now is supporting bats with good habitat and reducing those additional stressors," she says.

    As this disease spreads west, Verant's findings will play a big part in the debate over the federal government's response. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now deciding whether one type of bat called the northern long-eared should be added to the endangered species list. Last month, Canada's government did just that, adding three types of bats to its list of endangered animals.

  • 01/07/2015:  White-nose syndrome: Disrupting the balance, UWMadScience
    (Link to the original article)


    If youre a bat, hibernation is usually a time to slow down your metabolism, drop your body temperature and live off your stored fat reserves while winter does its thing. Its a prescription for laziness, a requirement for survival. Energy is everything. So if something disrupts the balance say, infection with Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome disastrous consequences death may result.

    A brand new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that white-nose syndrome may be killing bats by increasing the amount of energy they use during hibernation, disrupting the delicate energy rationing balance they must maintain to stay healthy and alive. Its the first time scientists have been able to explain, in detail, how the disease may be killing millions of bats in North America.

    This model is exciting for us, because we now have a framework for understanding how the disease functions within a bat, says Michelle Verant, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and USGS National Wildlife Health Center, lead author of the study, in a statement from USGS.

    A better understanding means scientists can work toward more effectively developing ways to help keep bats alive.

    To read more, check out the study here, or read more from USGS and UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.



    Nik Hawkins, director of communications and public relations for the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, contributed to this post.

  • 01/07/2015:  How Does White-Nose Syndrome Kill Bats?, USGS
    (Link to the original article)


    For the first time, scientists have developed a detailed explanation of how white-nose syndrome (WNS) is killing millions of bats in North America, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin. The scientists created a model for how the disease progresses from initial infection to death in bats during hibernation.

    This model is exciting for us, because we now have a framework for understanding how the disease functions within a bat, said University of Wisconsin and USGS National Wildlife Health Center scientist Michelle Verant, the lead author of the study. The mechanisms detailed in this model will be critical for properly timed and effective disease mitigation strategies.

    Scientists hypothesized that WNS, caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, makes bats die by increasing the amount of energy they use during winter hibernation. Bats must carefully ration their energy supply during this time to survive without eating until spring. If they use up their limited energy reserves too quickly, they can die.

    The USGS tested the energy depletion hypothesis by measuring the amounts of energy used by infected and healthy bats hibernating under similar conditions. They found that bats with WNS used twice as much energy as healthy bats during hibernation and had potentially life-threatening physiologic imbalances that could inhibit normal body functions.

    Scientists also found that these effects started before there was severe damage to the wings of the bats and before the disease caused increased activity levels in the hibernating bats.

    Clinical signs are not the start of the disease they likely reflect more advanced disease stages, Verant said. This finding is important because much of our attention previously was directed toward what we now know to be bats in later stages of the disease, when we observe visible fungal infections and behavioral changes.

    Key findings of the study include:

    Bats infected with P. destructans had higher proportions of lean tissue to fat mass at the end of the experiment compared to the non-infected bats. This finding means that bats with WNS used twice as much fat as healthy control bats over the same hibernation period. The amount of energy they used was also higher than what is expected for normal healthy hibernating little brown bats.

    Bats with mild wing damage had elevated levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in their blood resulting in acidification and pH imbalances throughout their bodies. They also had high potassium levels, which can inhibit normal heart function.

    The study, White-nose syndrome initiates a cascade of physiologic disturbances in the hibernating bat host, is published in BMC Physiology. Learn more about WNS, ongoing research and actions that are being taken here:

  • 01/07/2015:  Seabirds are massively dying off and scientists cant figure out why, Salon
    (Link to the original article)


    Cassins aucklets, seabirds found along the Pacific Coast, often experience minor die-offs in winter months, especially when the cold weather is particularly unforgiving. But the die-off scientists are currently observing from San Luis Obispo, Calif. all the way to British Columbia isnt the result of typical winter hardship.

    A group at the University of Washingtons Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) have found over 1,200 dead birds since fall, but the real number of deaths could be much, much higher.

    The eeriest part? Nobody can figure out why.

    Its clear that the birds have starved, which rules out a number of causes of death, including poisonous food sources or an oil spill. Beyond that, there isnt much to go on.

    The LA Times Javier Panzar outlined some theories:

    One explanation is that the birds are starving as a consequence of an unusually successful breeding session last year in British Columbia.

    Almost every breeding pair laid an egg, and as the young birds fly south for the winter they may not all be finding the small fish and shrimp they normally feed on, Executive Director of COASST Julia Parrish said.

    The Pacific has also been a few degrees warmer this winter, which could touch off subtle changes in the food chain that make it harder for the small birds to find sustenance

    If the bottom had fallen out of the ecosystem, you would be seeing everybody dying, but we are not, said Lindsay Adrean, a wildlife biologist at the Oregan Department of Fish and Wildlife. There is a little bit of a mystery to it.

    The U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center is also examining the bird corpses, hoping to find some answers.

    To be this lengthy and geographically widespread, I think is kind of unprecedented, said Phillip Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, in an interview with the Salem Statesman Journal. Its an interesting and somewhat mysterious event.

  • 01/05/2015:  Why is the beach covered in dead birds?, Statesman Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    Many visitors to Oregon's coast over the holidays were greeted with the disturbing sight of dead seabirds.

    On Dec. 21, on the beach at Seaside, more than 50 dead birds washed ashore, most of them Cassin's auklets.

    On Dec. 26, Robert Ollikainen, of Tillamook, found 132 dead birds on the beach there, including 126 Cassin's auklets.

    "It was pretty dramatic," Ollikainen said.

    On Dec. 27, Dave Miller counted 15 dead Cassin's auklets at Moolack Beach. The next day, he found more at Beverly Beach.

    "I estimate there were probably 30 to 50 per mile," said Miller, who grew up in Newport and now lives in Camas, Wash. "I've never seen that many before."

    It's normal for some seabirds to die during harsh winter conditions, especially during big storms like the one that occurred Dec. 21, said Julia Burco, wildlife veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    But a mass die-off of Cassin's auklets a "wreck" in birding lingo has been going on along the entire West Coast since October, and no one knows exactly why.

    Mass die-offs of the small, white-bellied gray birds have been reported from British Columbia to San Luis Obispo, Calif.

    But Oregon's north coast seems to be the epicenter, said Phillip Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition.

    "We've been receiving a lot of reports in the last couple weeks," Johnson said.

    There also have been reports of live but struggling Cassin's auklets on beaches since November.

    Oregon State University tested some of the dead birds from Seaside. Preliminary reports indicate they starved to death, Burco said.

    "It doesn't look like a toxin," she said. "It's more likely due to weather and food supply."

    But why are the birds starving?

    Some experts speculate the die-off is the result of a successful breeding season: If the population grows rapidly, a certain percentage of young won't survive.

    Others point to climate change:

    Unusually violent storms may be pushing the birds into areas they're not used to, or are preventing them from foraging.

    Or, a warming and more acidic ocean could be affecting the tiny zooplankton, such as krill, the birds feed upon.

    "The suggestion is that the ocean for some combination of reasons is less abundant for their food sources," Johnson said.

    The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin is conducting additional necropsies on dead Cassin's auklets, Johnson said.

    And the University of Washington's Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) is studying the die-off.

    "To be this lengthy and geographically widespread, I think is kind of unprecedented," Johnson said. "It's an interesting and somewhat mysterious event."

  • 12/22/2014:  WSU WADDL is site for latest avian influenza testing, Charlie Powell, College of Veterinary Medicine
    (Link to the original article)


    PULLMAN, Wash. Animal disease authorities both nationally and in Washington were already on high alert when in early December a large wild duck die-off occurred in northwest Washington.

    The event was soon under investigation by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The alertness and quick response were part of the multiagency disease surveillance vigilance that comes with knowing British Columbia, Canada, had begun dealing with an outbreak of HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza), strain H5N2, earlier this fall.

    On Dec. 9, samples from the ducks were tested for avian influenza (AI) at the Washington State University Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Puyallup, Wash. (WADDL-Puyallup). Results were presumptive positive for a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.

    The highly pathogenic designation means it was an influenza virus capable of causing severe disease and high mortality in domestic poultry.

    On Dec. 11, a privately owned falcon from the same region was submitted by its owner to WADDL-Puyallup for cause-of-death determination. Based upon its history of being legally fed wild duck meat, testing for AI was initiated immediately. Within hours, results were presumptive positive for two indicators of HPAI.

    By protocol, additional samples from both cases were expedited to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa, for confirmatory testing and further virus characterization.

    Independently, samples were received by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wis. On Dec. 14, the falcon was confirmed positive for the H5N8 strain of AI, or HPAI H5N8.

    Almost simultaneously with the identification of HPAI in the falcon, a wild duck from the same geographical region of Washington was confirmed positive for HPAI H5N2.

    Immediately after the confirmation of HPAI in Washington, the USDA, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Health and WSU WADDL collaborated with others to establish a pre-planned incident command structure and an aggressive enhanced surveillance program for AI.

    On Dec. 18, WSU WADDL-Pullman began receiving samples for HPAI testing in its Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) testing laboratories, a core lab in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

    WADDLs experienced and highly trained laboratory staff use state-of-the-art equipment to conduct high throughput testing, meaning large volumes of samples and the shortest turnaround times. Combined with its information technology expertise and nationally standardized procedures, WADDL can effectively and safely conduct HPAI testing.

    It is expected that surveillance testing will continue for months and include analysis of perhaps thousands of samples. Should the situation worsen, WADDL and its partner laboratories in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network are prepared to handle whatever testing loads may arise. WADDL is also working closely with both NVSL and the NWHC in further diagnostic testing and characterization.

    Key information:

    On Dec.15, the USDA announced the presence of two strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in wild birds in Washington state.

    To date, both strains of HPAI are occurring ONLY in wild bird species in Washington.

    There is NO SIGN of the viruses in commercial poultry flocks.

    There is ALMOST NO RISK to human health as the disease has never been seen in people in the U.S.

    The many strains of AI occur commonly in wild birds worldwide and the disease risks are well known to both human and animal disease experts.

    Important information links:

    USDA

    All bird owners, whether commercial producers or backyard enthusiasts, are encouraged to practice good biosecurity, prevent contact between their birds and wild birds, and report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to state/federal officials, either through the state veterinarian or through USDAs toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593. Additional information on biosecurity for backyard flocks can be found at http://healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov/.

    Washington State Department of Agriculture

    Persons seeing sickness in domestic birds are asked to contact the WSDA Avian Health Program at 1-800-606-3056. Sick and dead wild birds should be reported to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-606-8768. If you are concerned about sickness in yourself or your family, please contact Washington State Department of Health at 1-800-525-0127. See http://agr.wa.gov/ and http://agr.wa.gov/News/2014/14-25.aspx.

    Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife

    Kristin Mansfield, WDFW Veterinarian, 509-892-1001, ext. 326, or cell 509-998-2023. See http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/avian_flu/index.html.



    Contact:

    Charlie Powell, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine public information officer, call or text 509-595-2017, cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu

  • 12/22/2014:  Bird flu in Whatcom County linked to Wiser Lake area, The Bellingham Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    The two separate strains of bird flu traced to wild birds in Whatcom County have been linked to the Wiser Lake area, which is three miles southwest of Lynden.

    Tests identified the H5N2 virus in a northern pintail duck and H5N8 in four captive gyrfalcons fed what is believed to be a wild widgeon killed by a hunter, according to Hon Ip, a virologist with the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

    The pintail was part of a small die-off of birds at Wiser Lake and the widgeon came from an area near the lake, Ip said Wednesday, Dec. 17.

    Remains of the widgeon were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa for tests to confirm that it was the carrier of the virus that sickened the gyrfalcons, according to Ip. At least three of the falcons have died.

    Bird flu can be deadly to poultry and other birds. Its confirmation in Whatcom County has created concern among officials and residents here, including those with backyard chicken flocks, who are following news of an outbreak of bird flu in commercial poultry just over the border in British Columbia.

    And while the outbreak in Canada also has been linked to a H5N2 strain of the disease, Ip said officials dont yet know if its exactly the same strain found in the pintail duck at Wiser Lake.

    We dont have enough information between our virus and the Canadian virus to say that theyre identical. Theres a lot of similarities. We think the two viruses are related, Ip said.

    Officials also dont yet know whether wild birds at Wiser Lake spread the disease north to poultry operations in Canada, or whether Wiser Lake birds were exposed to the virus from those commercial poultry operations.

    The bird flu cases in Whatcom County were found quickly because of increased surveillance due to the B.C. outbreak, officials have said. But Ip also said that die-offs at Wiser Lake are tested for bird flu as a precaution to monitor for these kinds of introduction.

    The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife collected the pintail duck after a die-off of about 50 to 100 wild birds at Wiser Lake over a short period of time, Ip said. Such die-offs are usual at this time of the year at the lake, where some 10,000 birds gather, and officials have documented poisoning from lead shot or a fungal disease called aspergillosis in past years.

    Most of the birds those birds that died at Wiser Lake did so because of aspergillosis, according to Ip.

    Officials tracking the bird flu once again stressed on Wednesday that the H5N2 and H5N8 strains werent an immediate health concern for people because they have been found elsewhere in the world and have yet to infect humans.

    And there hasnt been a reported case of a person in the U.S. sickened with bird flu from an infected bird.

    Neither virus has been found in commercial poultry in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. And neither virus has been in the U.S. until now.

    Still, agriculture officials said that poultry, poultry products and wild birds are safe to eat even if they did carry the disease if they are properly handled and cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Meanwhile, a town hall meeting has been organized for Thursday, Dec. 18, in Lynden for poultry producers and owners of backyard flocks.

    The Washington State Department of Agriculture and representatives from other agencies will be there to talk about the current situation in Washington state and in B.C.

    Agriculture officials said they picked Lynden for the public meeting because of its proximity to the Canadian border and because they plan to increase testing in the area. The two strains are highly contagious to chickens.

    Testing would be fine with Lauralee McLeod, who has a backyard flock of chickens at her Wiser Lake home.

    Were right in the flyway, she said.

    McLeod said her chickens arent sick but she thought officials might like to have data, given where she lives.

    Officials said that commercial producers and backyard bird enthusiasts can keep the flu away from their flocks by taking steps that include preventing contact with wild birds, but McLeod said that could be difficult. Her chickens are housed in a small coop and also are fenced in in a larger area.

    But being chickens they fly out, walk around. We dont have them enclosed in any kind of big building, she said.

    For her, the takeaway is that people need to be watching their flocks and not ignoring any symptoms or any die-offs.

    Because wild birds can carry bird flu viruses without appearing sick, officials also are telling people to avoid sick or dead poultry or wildlife.

    If contact does occur, people should wash their hands with soap and water and change their clothes before coming into contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.

    The status of the die-offs was corrected Thursday, Dec. 18.

    Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/12/17/4034064_bird-flu-in-whatcom-county-linked.html?sp=/99/101/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

  • 12/22/2014:  Hi-Path bird flu found in wild birds in Washington state, Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
    (Link to the original article)


    WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2014 - USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic (HPAI) H5 avian influenza in wild birds in Whatcom County, Washington.

    Two separate virus strains were identified: HPAI H5N2 in northern pintail ducks and HPAI H5N8 in captive Gyrfalcons that were fed hunter-killed wild birds, USDA said in a news release. Neither virus has been found in commercial poultry anywhere in the U.S. and no human cases with these viruses have been detected in the U.S., Canada or internationally. There is no immediate public health concern with either of these avian influenza viruses, USDA said.

    Both H5N2 and H5N8 viruses have been found in other parts of the world and have not caused any human infection to date, according to USDA. While neither virus has been found in commercial poultry, federal authorities emphasize that poultry, poultry products and wild birds are safe to eat even if they carry the disease if they are properly handled and cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The finding in Whatcom County was reported and identified quickly due to increased surveillance for avian influenza in light of HPAI H5N2 avian influenza outbreaks in commercial poultry farms in British Columbia, Canada.

    The northern pintail duck samples were collected by officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife following a waterfowl die-off at Wiser Lake, Washington, and were sent to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center for diagnostic evaluation and initial avian influenza testing. The U.S. Department of the Interior's USGS, which also conducts ongoing avian influenza testing of wild bird mortality events, identified the samples as presumptive positive for H5 avian influenza and sent them to USDA for confirmation. The gyrfalcon samples were collected after the falconer reported signs of illness in his birds.

    Following existing avian influenza response plans, USDA is working with the departments of Interior and Health and Human Services as well as state partners on additional surveillance and testing of both commercial and wild birds in the nearby area.

    Wild birds can be carriers of HPAI viruses without the birds appearing sick. People should avoid contact with sick/dead poultry or wildlife. If contact occurs, wash your hands with soap and water and change clothing before having any contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.

    Learn about the benefits of subscribing to Agri-Pulse. Sign up for your four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

    HPAI would have significant economic impacts if detected in U.S. domestic poultry, USDA said. Commercial poultry producers follow strict biosecurity practices and raise their birds in very controlled environments. Federal officials emphasize that all bird owners, whether commercial producers or backyard enthusiasts, should continue practicing good biosecurity. This includes preventing contact between your birds and wild birds, and reporting sick birds or unusual bird deaths to State/Federal officials, either through a state veterinarian or through USDA's toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593. Additional information on biosecurity for backyard flocks can be found at healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov.

    CDC considers the risk to people from these HPAI H5 infections in wild birds to be low because (like H5N1) these viruses do not now infect humans easily, and even if a person is infected, the viruses do not spread easily to other people.

    Avian influenza (AI) is caused by influenza type A viruses which are endemic in some wild birds (such as wild ducks and swans) which can infect poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese and guinea fowl). AI viruses are classified by a combination of two groups of proteins: hemagglutinin or "H" proteins, of which there are 17 (H1-H17), and neuraminidase or "N" proteins, of which there are 10 (N1-N10). Many different combinations of "H" and "N" proteins are possible. Each combination is considered a different subtype, and can be further broken down into different strains. AI viruses are further classified by their pathogenicity-the ability of a particular virus to produce disease in domestic chickens.

  • 12/09/2014:  Researchers race time and the environment to study Snake Fungal Disease, The Badger Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    Wild snake populations plagued by a deadly skin disease have become an increasingly growing area of research in Wisconsin.

    Jonathan Sleeman, center director at the National Wildlife Health Center located in Madison, said there is a growing number of new and emerging diseases, Snake Fungal Disease being one of the latest.

    According to the NWHC website, Snake Fungal Disease gets its name because the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola has consistently been associated with the skin lesions on an infected snake.

    Once the fungus is established on the snake its capable of doing some nasty things, Jeff Lorch, a research associate at University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, said. It starts outside and can go down into the living layers of skin and even down into the skeletal muscle and damaging bone.

    Lorch said when the first report of this disease came out in 2006, the problem was thought to be limited to the eastern U.S. where the study took place, and therefore not a cause for concern. The inherent challenges of studying snakes also made the research slow to start, Lorch said.

    Snakes are really secretive and hard to find, so its really difficult to prove that populations are declining, Lorch said.

    As researchers are finding ways around these challenges, more reports have been funneling in from other parts of the U.S., including the Midwest, Lorch said. The impact on infected populations, he said, results in a difficult recovery.

    Most people, when they think of snakes, probably think of something that lives for two or three years, Lorch said. But rattlesnakes can live for up to 30 years. They dont sexually mature until theyre about 9 or 10, and they only give birth every two to three years.

    Although exposure to the fungus is usually not a problem if the snakes are able to shed their skins or fight off the infections by seeking warmer temperatures Lorch said, its whatever is causing them to be unable to fend off the infection in certain years that results in chronic infection and death.

    Climate change is an obvious factor here, Lorch said. I think reptiles and amphibians are interesting in that theyre probably the sentinels for how climate change can influence disease.

    He said a trend of years with warmer winters and wet spring times have been associated with worse outbreaks of Snake Fungal Disease. Warm winters may be facilitating fungal growth during hibernation, which could mean a greater likelihood of exposure. Combined with colder, wet spring times, snakes may not be able to get their immune systems pumped up when they come out of hibernation to rid themselves of the disease upon exposure.

    Were dealing with a cold-blooded animal thats at the mercy of its environmental conditions to regulate its immune system, Lorch said.

    Less work has been done to show the ecological impact that snake population declines could have, compared to other species threatened by fungal diseases, Lorch said. However, he said work is being done to show that snakes do play key roles in the food web, as far as what they consume and what eats them. For example, he said, certain rattlesnakes and other snakes may play a role in lime disease control by consuming rodents, which are primary reservoirs of the disease.

    Looking at the bigger picture context, were living in a global environment thats very much favoring the emergence of these infectious diseases, Sleeman said. Theyre having pretty profound consequences for public health, for the economy and for wildlife conservation.

  • 11/24/2014:  How to Stop the Next Ebola: Call in the Veterinarians, National Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    New York City's crows were dying.

    It was the summer of 1999, and Tracey McNamara, then the chief veterinary pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, was growing concerned. The crows were dying in scoresstaggering, having seizures, keeling over. Soon, the mysterious illness came for the zoo's exotic birds. Three flamingos, a cormorant, an Asian pheasantall dead within a few days of one another.

    "Anything that dropped dead on our grounds got necropsied, and I pursued a diagnosis," says McNamara, now a professor at Western University. McNamara had a mystery: What was killing the birds? "I already knew that we were not dealing with anything known to veterinary medicine," she says. "It was something new. And then when I heard that people were dying of an unusual encephalitis, I'm like, 'Oh, there's a link.' " That September, several residents of New York City had contracted and died of a similar illness.

    McNamara called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn them. They brushed her off. "I was told I was wrong and there was no possible connection between the two events," she says. She also went to the Agriculture Department, but the USDA did not have the lab capabilities to finalize a diagnosis. Everything was moving too slowly. "The veterinarian cracked the case, and no one was interested in talking with her because she was a veterinarian," says Laura H. Kahn, a physician and biodefense researcher at Princeton. They should have listened: McNamara identified the first outbreak of West Nile virus in North America.

    Why veterinarians and medical doctors need to work together

    The West Nile story is important. It is also the story of avian flu, rabies, MERS, HIV, SARS, anthrax, and Ebola. The common thread: These are all illnesses that can be passed from animals to humans. "Often, infectious diseases circulate in animals for a long time before they cause outbreaks in humans," says Wondwossen Gebreyes, the director of Global Health Programs and a professor of molecular epidemiology at Ohio State University. "To prevent disease in humans, we should be able to address what's happening in the animal world and what is happening in the environment," Gebreyes says. Human and animal health are irrevocably linked. As a veterinarian, he says, "I've always been interested in saving human lives."

    Seventy-five percent of newly emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be spread between animals and humans. And they wreak havoc: People fall ill having no natural defenses, and there is often no medicine to fill the gap. It's estimated that between 1997 and 2009, the cost of these diseases amounted to $80 billion worldwide. Every year, there are 2.5 billion cases of zoonotic illnesses in humans, resulting in 2.7 million deaths.

    This conceptconnecting human medical and veterinary scienceis called One Health. And in this framework veterinarians are the sentinels, monitoring the animal kingdom for potential threats to humans. "Once outbreaks originate, like we are seeing with Ebola, often it is too late," Gebreyes says. Prevention of the spread from animals to humans in the first place is key.

    Africa has the most to gain from a united medical front. Much of the continent is a hot spot for zoonotic diseaseurbanization into biodiverse areas increases the chances for viral spillover. Combine that with poor health systems, unregulated bush meat economies, and poor veterinary systems, and the emergence of new diseases on the continent is not that surprising.

    In the case of rabies, a zoonotic disease with an almost 100 percent fatality rate, a One Health approach means working with the local government to mass-vaccinate dogs. If you vaccinate the dogs, you save the people. It means educating the population about what a rabid dog looks like. It means identifying and tracking down the bats that give the rabies to the dogs. It means educating government officials. It also means setting up a health care system to treat humans with the disease. But the overall goal is to establish a system that is able to stop disease before it touches its first human.

    If that framework is in place, medical disasters can be averted. "In the future, if they faceGod forbid, Ebola or MERS or another major diseasethey have a working system to be able to control it," Gebreyes says.

    How to find the next Ebola

    So how do you find the next Ebola, the next rabies, the next West Nile before it comes to infect humans? You actively look for it in the wild.

    That's what the University of California (Davis) is doing by deploying teams of veterinarians into zoonotic hot spots around the worldin Africa, Asia, Central America, and South Americato detect outbreaks in animal populations before they get out of control. Through their Predict initiative, funded through USAID, they also empower local governments by giving them the tools to detect and diagnose strains without having to ship samples abroad. "We're looking for viruses in viral families that have had a lot of zoonotic diseases, especially ones that have high pandemic potentialviruses like influenza, viruses like MERS, flaviviruses e.g., encephalitis," Christine Kreuder Johnson, a U.C. Davis veterinarian and epidemiologist, says.

    In 2012, the U.C. Davis group encountered five dead howler monkeys in Boliva. The team immediately collected samples, ran diagnostics, and discovered a deadly strain of zoonotic yellow fever in the necropsies. That triggered a comprehensive response from the Bolivian government. "Before any human cases could develop, the Bolivian government implemented a vaccination campaign, public outreach to talk about the situation so that people knew to avoid mosquitos, and a mosquito-control effort," Johnson says. "There were zero human cases."

    With greater surveillance of wildlife diseases, Johnson says it's possible we find out that the spillover of animal viruses to humans is far more common than we currently realize. Viruses have been evolving without detection in animals for thousands of years. And humans are pushing farther and farther into natural habitats. "It's just a matter of chance that some of those viruses will be able to find the right pathway to emerge in people," she says.

    Could 1999 happen again?

    In 2000, what was then the U.S. General Accounting Office released a critical report on the West Nile outbreak response. "A consensus that the bird and human outbreaks were linked, which was a key to identifying the correct source, took time to develop and was initially dismissed by many involved in the investigation," it read. "Better communication is needed among public health agencies." Regardless, when N.Y. officials initially misdiagnosed the human outbreak as St. Louis encephalitis, they activated mosquito control and probably saved lives. But what if it wasn't a mosquito disease, and for three weeks CDC was fighting the wrong virus without any success?

    Now, CDC has an office for One Health under the umbrella of its National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinarian working on zoonosis at CDC, says that the agency maintains much greater collaboration and communication with the USDA, universities, and local wildlife agencies to better implement a One Health approach in the United States.

    "One Health is the future," Behravesh says. "If I'm working on a salmonella outbreak, I might talk to the USDA's national veterinary services laboratory to see what they are seeing. Those sorts of things happen every day."

    While CDC is the primary agency on these issues, the surveillance of animal disease is still scattered across the bureaucracy. The USDA monitors livestock but not wild animals. The Interior Department has a National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., but that lab has a research staff of around 30, a number McNamara says isn't large enough for truly national disease surveillance. "I don't think you'd have a repeat of what happened 15 years ago," McNamara says. But she's still worried there isn't enough coordination among the agencies.

    She isn't alone. In 2013, the National Preparedness and Response Science Board (housed under the Health and Human Services Department) found "inadequate or lack of efficient and relevant information-sharing at and across all levels and areas" on biosurveillance issues, and "strongly emphasized the need to designate an oversight authority to assure compatibility, consistency, continuity, coordination, and integration of all the disparate systems and data."

    Funding discrepancies abound. Comparatively, "there is very little research going on in animal diseases," Princeton's Kahn, who cofounded the One Health Initiative, an informational resource, says. The national research budget for human diseases is $29 billion. The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture has a total budget of $783 million, none of which is specifically budgeted for animal health research.

    If detecting disease threats from wildlife is a difficult prospect for the United States, what can we expect from the developing world? The current Ebola outbreak will subside, but the question remains: Will the public health authorities in West Africa be stronger or weaker in its wake? In a globalized world, health needs to be a globalized effort.

    "The key message is, the world needs to wake up and learn from this lesson and not wait for another major outbreak to happen," Gebreyes says. "But rather work together to develop a systemand strong working relationshipbetween the developed and developing regions in the One Health system."

  • 11/18/2014:  High ocean temperatures endangering seabirds?, Santa Cruz Sentinel Wildlife
    (Link to the original article)


    Small seabirds are washing up dead on local beaches, an unusual phenomenon that suggests high ocean temperatures are causing starvation.

    The hardy gray birds, call Cassins auklets, are rarely sighted in offshore waters. They normally live in the distant open ocean, feeding on small crustaceans in the cold Pacific.

    But this month, large numbers of thin, dying or dead birds are appearing along our coast. Most reports come from San Mateo County beaches, such as Pescaderos Gazos Creek and Pacificas Linda Mar. Bodies also have been found on the coasts of Marin and Sonoma counties.

    A preliminary analysis of the bodies of five young birds by the National Wildlife Health Center concluded that they were in poor or emaciated condition, consistent with a lack of zooplankton, according to Beach Watch, a monitoring project of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association.

    Barbara Kossy, of Moss Beach, recently spotted one while she kayaked on Half Moon Bay.

    This bird seemed sort of listless and didnt react in any way, said Kossy, a board member of the San Mateo Resource Conservation District. It was an unusual sighting, and she kept her distance.

    Typically, they look at you or, if startled, they either fly or dive, she said. The bird was clearly unwell.

    Calling the phenomenon an unusual mortality event, the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association is working with state and federal agencies as well as local researchers to to determine its scope and cause.

    Seabirds like auklets are indicator species of the overall health of the marine ecosystem just off our shore, according to the association, which protects the wildlife and habitats of the Gulf of the Farallones off the Golden Gate.

    After an early November storm off the Pacific Northwest coast, bird bodies were scattered along beaches, according to the Chinook Observer, a newspaper in Washington state. Like the California birds, they were youngsters who hatched this spring.

    Rare changes in wind patterns this fall have caused the Pacific Ocean off our coast to warm to historic levels, scientists say. In mid-October, it was 65 degrees off the Farallon Islands and in Monterey Bay; in most years, water temperatures in those areas would be in the high 50s or low 60s.

    Thats because winds arent pushing away warm surface water and churning up cold water from down below, a seasonal change called upwelling.

    The warm water is linked to other unusual sea sightings. Southern species such as the common dolphin, Guadalupe fur seal and even the endangered sea turtle have been observed off the Northern California coast.

    The stalled ocean upwelling means that tiny zooplankton like krill are not rising from cold depths.

    A shortage of zooplankton was detected during research tests in September.

    Thats tough for seabirds like auklets, which eat zooplankton only.

    Additional testing is needed to confirm that is what is killing them, according to the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association. Scientists want to rule out bacterial or viral disease.

    If confirmed, They would be the first seabird species hit hard by a lack of krill, the association said.

  • 11/16/2014:  Scientists scramble to figure out deadly snake fungus, Miwaukee Journal Sentinel
    (Link to the original article)


    A fungus that's killing snakes in Wisconsin and several other states including endangered rattlesnakes is baffling scientists who are trying to figure out how it's spreading.

    Wildlife biologists are comparing it to white-nose syndrome, which is devastating bat populations. The mysterious disease has been documented in timber rattlesnakes in four Wisconsin counties: Sauk, Grant, La Crosse and Trempealeau.

    Snake fungal disease leaves bumps, scabs or crusty scales on the head and mouth.

    "It's not a good death," said Rori Paloski, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist. "A lot of the deformities are on the face and mouth. A lot of them die from starvation or dehydration because they can't eat or drink."

    Last year Wisconsin's DNR was awarded a two-year grant of $10,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor nine sites where timber and massasauga rattlesnakes live.

    Timber rattlesnakes are listed as threatened or endangered in several states, though not in Wisconsin. Massasauga rattlesnakes are endangered in Wisconsin.

    At two of the sites, DNR biologists and volunteers are implanting microchips similar to those used in dogs and cats. At the other seven sites, snakes are being captured and assessed. Any with mysterious lesions or signs of snake fungal disease are biopsied and sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, said Rich Staffen, a DNR conservation biologist.

    First discovered in a captive black rat snake in Georgia in 2006, snake fungal disease has been found in numerous snake species in the eastern United States and the Midwest.

    Unlike white-nose syndrome, which was first found in 2006 in New York and has steadily moved westward, there has been no discernible pattern for the spread of snake fungal disease, Paloski said.

    The disease has also been found in Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Some states have reported serious declines in snake populations.

    Though four cases have been confirmed in Wisconsin, it's likely more snakes have died from the fungus here.

    "Looking back at pictures from previous years when we didn't know we had it, we figured out we probably had it in several more species," Paloski said.

    Scientists are trying to figure out how the fungus spreads and are developing a test to identify it at an early stage so snakes can be treated.

    "One of the things we're focusing on it's likely spread through hibernacula sites when snakes are in contact with each other. But whether it's through the soil or airborne or some other way, we're not sure," Staffen said.

    how to help

    The DNR is seeking the public's help in surveying for snake fungal disease. Anyone who sees a snake with bumps, scabs or crusty scales is asked to take a photo and email it to richard.staffen@wisconsin.gov.

  • 11/12/2014:  Mysterious Fungal Disease Proves Deadly in Wild Snakes, livescience.com
    (Link to the original article)


    The female mud snake found May 28 in Georgia had cloudy eyes and patches of white, thickened scales. A strange, dark-gray material covered the inside of her mouth, and the skin on the front of her face had peeled away, leaving behind an angry red mess.

  • 10/13/2014:  "Don't eat hiyok," says Fish & Wildlife, Marianas Variety
    (Link to the original article)


    THE Division of Fish and Wildlife is discouraging the public from eating blue-banded surgeonfish commonly known as hiyok because it is dangerous.

    Acting Director for Fish and Wildlife Manny Pangelinan in an interview on Friday said the public should not eat hiyok until there is an official announcement that it is safe to consume.

    Pangelinan said they have received the results of tests done by experts in Hawaii that revealed that fish-kill incidents on Tinian and Saipan in the past two months were caused by marine toxins.

    However, he added, there are no findings yet as to what kind of marine toxins killed the fish.

    Pangelinan said the public should remove the guts of the fish and wash the insides thoroughly before cooking it.

    The experts found that the fish flesh or meat is not poisonous, but the guts could be, so we are not 100 percent sure that it is safe to eat and one should be very cautious in eating this kind of fish, he said.

    Mike Tenorio, a fisheries biologist, said hiyok is one of the top selling fish in the local market, but vendors have already stopped selling it.

    We discourage people from eating it, but if they chose to do so they should be very careful, Tenorio said.

    Pangelinan said this is the first time that fish-kill incidents involving hiyok have happened on Saipan.

    But he said such incidents were only reported on Tinian and Saipan and not on Rota and Guam.

    The first incident of fish kill happened on Tinian on Aug. 16 at the Chulu Beach and Masalok Beach.

    Thousands of fish were found floating dead.

    On August 28 another incident of fish kill was reported to DFW at Obyan Beach on Saipan. Similar incidents were reported on Sept. 10, 14, 19, 21 and 22 at Laolao Bay, Managaha and Tank Beaches.

    A series of investigations, sample collections and samples testing were done by DFW personnel to determine the cause of these fish kills.

    Dr. Thierry M. Work, a wildlife disease specialist from the National Wildlife Health Center in Hawaii, was also asked to examine samples of fish collected and submitted by DFW.

    Dr. Work found there are marine toxins, but its difficult to pinpoint what kind of toxins because there are so manymarine toxins, Pangelinan said.

    We wanted to determine if the marine toxins can be transferred to humans or if it was a kind of virus.

    Its not a virus or bacteria and the fish are not starving.

    Pangelinan said they are still closely monitoring the incidents and continuing to investigate while seeking more expert opinions regarding the marine toxins and why they are affecting hiyok only.

  • 10/11/2014:  Paralytic shellfish poisoning could be 'underreported' cause of death for marine birds, Alaska Dispatch News
    (Link to the original article)


    Humans are not the only species vulnerable to the deadly effects of paralytic shellfish poisoning, commonly known as PSP. In a recently published study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the disease has been named as the cause of death for multiple Kittlitz's murrelet chicks -- a species of concern -- found dead on Alaska's Kodiak Island.

    Scientists believe that these are not the first seabirds to die because of PSP. "The impact of PSP in marine bird populations may be more severe than previously recognized," the study says.

    According to the study, similar cases are likely "underreported."

    Valerie Shearn-Bochsler, a USGS diagnostic pathologist at the National Wildlife Health Center, said it is likely underreported because biologists don't test for it. She said it is possible that the Kittlitz's murrelet deaths are a rare occurrence but because the test is not typically run in seabird mortalities and it is a difficult test to run, she doesn't believe "people think about it."

    Infared cameras placed by researchers recorded the nestlings consuming fish just hours before their death. The study said that at the time of death, the chicks were apparently healthy, weighing a normal weight and living in mild weather conditions.

    After they were found dead, their bodies were collected, placed in an ethanol solution for preservation and sent to the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where necropsies were performed.

    Of the eight birds that could be tested for PSP, all but one tested positive.

    Shearn-Bochsler said it is not unheard of for other species to feel the effects of PSP.

    "It has been recorded in humpback whales along the New England coast," she said. "It is not terribly surprising that the birds that eat fish could be affected."

    She added that the number of adult Kittlitz's murrelet deaths are "extremely difficult to track," as they spend most of their time at sea, making it difficult to collect and preserve their carcasses.

    Kittlitz's murrelets are found from southeastern Alaska to the eastern coast of Russia.

    Contact Megan Edge at megan@alaskadispatch.com, Google+ or Twitter

  • 10/07/2014:  Massive disease outbreak hits Iowa deer farm, USA Today
    (Link to the original article)


    INDIANAPOLIS Nearly 300 white-tailed deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease on an Iowa deer farm, the most infected animals ever found inside a farmer's pens.

    The news comes as Indiana lawmakers are poised next week to issue recommendations on how best to regulate the state's deer-breeding operations and whether to ban deer imports.

    At a hearing in August in Indiana, deer breeders and their sympathetic veterinarians repeatedly downplayed the risk of CWD, saying rigorous testing keeps infection rates low and reduces the risk of massive outbreaks of the always-fatal disease.

    Some wildlife disease experts say this latest outbreak strongly suggests otherwise.

    "This is what happens when you allow disease to sit and percolate on a game farm," said Bryan Richards, the chronic wasting disease project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

    Iowa animal health officials Thursday released the results of CWD testing done this summer on a breeding operation owned by Tom and Rhonda Brakke of Clear Lake, Iowa.

    State and federal officials killed 356 of the Brakkes' breeder deer, so they could be tested for CWD.

    Of those deer, 284 tested positive, a rate of almost 80 percent. The Brakkes first had a buck test positive for CWD after it was shot in 2012 on a hunting ranch they also own. There is no approved live-animal test for CWD. Animals must be killed for sampling. In Iowa, state wildlife officials require all deer shot on hunting preserves be tested for CWD.

    But in 2012, the Brakkes had opted out of a voluntary CWD testing and certification program for their breeding stock.

    Tom Brakke said the 230 deer on the preserve were killed prior to this summer's slaughter in his breeding pens. Just two tested positive. Both had been shipped in from the breeding operation.

    The family fought Iowa officials in court for two years over what to do about deer in the Brakkes' breeding pens.

    The Brakkes contended in court that they should either be allowed to ship their breeding stock to their hunting preserve so they could be sold for hunts or be entitled to a $1.46 million cash payout from taxpayers, according to court records obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

    "We caught it early, then it rolls back on the state," Tom Brakke told The Star. "They quarantined it. Wouldn't let us move. Wouldn't let us do nothing."

    The state insisted on keeping the breeding stock under strict quarantine, since state wildlife officials believed the risk posed by moving infected animals to the hunting pens was too great.

    Still, the Brakkes will receive $917,100 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as payment for the animals that were killed.

    Brakke said that's a fraction of the nearly $2 million the deer are worth and what it cost him to maintain the herd during the protracted court fight.

    An infection rate this high has been seen only once before. In 2006, a captive-deer operation in Wisconsin had an 80 percent infection rate among 76 deer. That farmer delayed the killing of his deer for testing for four years as he haggled for a cash payment. Wildlife officials couldn't find 40 valuable bucks the owner said he had. Yet the owner was not fined. Instead, he received a $131,000 state and federal payment.

    State officials deemed the Wisconsin farm so contaminated with the infectious microscopic proteins that cause CWD, the state actually bought the deer breeder's land to permanently quarantine it.

  • 10/06/2014:  Scientists probe mass frog deaths in Maine, beyond, The Wichita Eagle
    (Link to the original article)


    PORTLAND, MAINE

    A Maine biologist documented the die-off of some 200,000 tadpoles in a pond in his backyard, igniting new interest among scientists in ranavirus, a disease that can cause swift mass deaths of amphibians.

    Bowdoin College professor Nathaniel Wheelwright recently published a paper about the die-off in the academic journal Herpetological Review, concluding the deaths in June of last year likely were due to ranavirus. It represents the largest documented mass natural death event of amphibians recorded in academic literature, he said.

    "It was traumatic, and it was unexpected, and it was shocking," Wheelwright said of finding the pond full of thousands of tadpole corpses. "I had two thoughts one, how sad to lose so many animals overnight, and two, what is the biology behind this strange event."

    Wheelwright's work is emerging as scientists around the country are trying to learn more about ranavirus, which poses a threat to already struggling species of frogs, toads and salamanders. Amphibians are the most imperiled class of vertebrates in the world, with about a third of them considered threatened.

    Scientists have documented the disease in more than 20 states, and some believe it is everywhere in the continental United States. The disease causes amphibians, especially larvae, to swell and hemorrhage. Whether cases of ranavirus are becoming more prevalent or if diagnosis is merely on the rise is a subject of current scientific inquiry, said Phillip de Maynadier, a biologist with the Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Department.

    De Maynadier said there have been a "flurry" of ranavirus die-offs in Acadia National Park over the last 15 years. However, he added that not enough data have been collected to determine if the disease is increasing in Maine or elsewhere. It's possible scientists are getting better at identifying it, he said.

    "It's certainly well documented," he said. "We know where it's occurred. It's real. And it's very damaging that it does happen."

    Ranavirus has existed in North America for at least 100 years, but it didn't come to the forefront of scientific research until about 15 years ago, said David Green, a veterinary pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Madison, Wisconsin. It has also been the subject of study in the mid-Atlantic states, where it has wiped out entire ecosystems of young amphibians. Many more mass die-offs of amphibians from ranavirus likely go unreported, Green said.

    Some have suggested that warmer temperatures have stressed amphibians to the point where they are more susceptible to ranavirus. Green said additional stressors probably aren't necessary, as the disease is virulent enough to kill off amphibians without them. The big question is about the impact of ranavirus on species' populations declines, he said.

    "We don't know how this is perhaps impacting populations biologically," Green said.

    Wheelwright said he didn't see any young frogs this summer at his pond, suggesting the possibility of a "second summer where they got nailed."

    Aram Calhoun, a biologist with the University of Maine who was studied ranavirus, said long-term data about ranavirus die-offs are needed to determine if the deaths in Wheelwright's pond are alarming. But amphibians are already imperiled by long-standing problems such as habitat loss, she added.

    "What I don't think is we should be extrapolating what happened in his pool to all pools in New England and say that's a trend, because we really don't know that," she said.

  • 10/04/2014:  In wake of drought and fires, turtle habitat becomes death trap, Los Angeles Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Biologists strode along the cracked, dry mud surrounding this evaporating north Los Angeles County lake last week, pausing periodically to pick up an emaciated turtle and wash alkaline dust off its head and carapace.

    "A lot of these animals are severely ill and starving," said Tim Hovey, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, as he gestured toward a group of turtles bobbing in the murky water offshore.

    After three years of drought, this natural 2-mile-long lake, about 15 miles west of Lancaster, has become a smelly, alkaline death trap for one of the largest populations of state-protected Western pond turtles in Southern California.

    Many of the lake's estimated 300 turtles shy, aquatic reptiles that are 4 to 8 inches long and live to be 60 years old are gathering along the receding shoreline with nothing to eat, no place to take refuge and "looking like they've been dipped in wet cement," U.S. Geological Survey biologist Jeff Lovich said.

    Occasional turtle die-offs are natural, but some biologists suggest the magnitude of this event may have been exacerbated by the water drawn from the drought-stricken lake to fight the devastating Powerhouse fire, which destroyed dozens of homes and scorched thousands of acres in the area last year.

    The turtles' plight was discovered in August during an environmental survey conducted by consultants working on behalf of some of the scores of people who are suing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power alleging the utility is responsible for the fire and failed to properly maintain power lines and equipment.

    Preliminary results of necropsies conducted on five turtle carcasses at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., suggest they died of diseases and conditions related to starvation, said David Green, an amphibian pathologist at the center.

    The situation is not unprecedented. Elizabeth Lake, which is fed by stormwater, dried up in the mid-1960s and again in the early 1990s, wiping out aquatic life, including pond turtles. In both instances, the species somehow managed to recolonize the lake.

    What sets the current crisis apart is an ongoing effort to save as many of the turtles as possible and to protect their genetic makeup.

    Genetic sampling indicates the turtles are unique because they contain genetic material of both northern and southern populations of the Western pond turtle, said Robert Fisher, a USGS biologist.

    In a collaborative rescue operation led by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the USGS, the U.S. Forest Service and the biological consulting firm Ecorps, 30 turtles were captured in September and transported to the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy's Behler Chelonian Center in Ventura County.

    "The turtles we took in are eating with vigor and bouncing back," said Paul Gibbons, managing director of the center and a reptile veterinarian certified by the American Veterinary Medical Assn. "They'll stay with us until it rains. After that, they'll be returned to the lake."

    An unknown number of turtles has perished in the lake, part of a chain of wetlands along the San Andreas Fault. The western half of the lake is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The eastern half is privately owned.

    A team of state biologists has been monitoring the turtles on a daily basis, and weighing offers from institutions such as the San Diego Zoo and UCLA to provide temporary housing for dozens more of the ailing reptiles.

    Complicating the search for caretakers is the concern that salvaged turtles might escape their temporary quarters and join local populations elsewhere, altering the genetic lineage.

    The Western pond turtle California's only native freshwater turtle was already in dire straits due to urbanization, which has consumed much of its habitat.

    Once common in streams and lakes from the Canadian border to Baja, Mexico, the turtle is listed as endangered in Oregon and Washington and as a "species of special concern" in California because of its dwindling population. The species has been proposed for federal listing.

    Armed with long-handled nets, water testing equipment and binoculars, Hovey and Gibbons recently walked the perimeter of the lake, which seemed to be on the verge of ecological collapse.

    Salinity levels at the lake range from 31 to 43 parts per thousand parts of water, Gibbons said. The salinity level of the Pacific Ocean is about 35 parts per thousand.

    Ravens poked at the remains of dead animals along the water's edge. Myriad fresh tracks winding from the shoreline to higher ground indicate that the healthier turtles have been seeking hibernation sites earlier than usual this year.

    "It pulls on our heart strings to see large numbers of animals that are weak, starving and behaving strangely," Gibbons said. "But wild populations sometimes get stronger by adapting to harsh conditions."

  • 10/04/2014:  Lead exposure and bald eagles examined, Clinton Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    Thousands of bald eagles migrate in winter and hundreds of eagles nest in spring along the Upper Mississippi River corridor. Their journey in Americas heartland may be a dangerous one.

    Dead eagles are randomly collected by state and federal conservation agencies. The eagles are sent to the National Eagle Repository in Denver, Colorado, where the feathers are distributed to Native American tribes for religious ceremonies.

    Researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a study on bald eagle mortality in the Upper Midwest in 2011 and collected 168 dead eagles from conservation agencies in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, was a partner in this study. A necropsy was performed on each eagle and livers were analyzed for lead concentrations to determine a cause of death.

    Forty-eight percent of the bald eagles had detectable concentrations of lead and 21 percent had lethal levels. Researchers investigated potential sources of lead in the environment to determine how eagles were being exposed. Bald eagles are predators and scavengers that hunt and fish, and their diet consists entirely of animal matter. Ammunition used in hunting wild game became a focus for the lead source.

    Lead is the traditional ammunition used by hunters. It is a soft metal that fragments into tiny pieces upon impact. Hunters often discard animal parts, especially entrails, in the field. Lead fragments embedded in discarded animal parts or in fatally wounded, but not retrieved game, are available to scavengers. Many scientific publications report that ammunition, especially used for deer hunting, is an exposure pathway for lead poisoning in several wildlife species.

    Managed deer hunts are conducted on the Lost Mound Unit of Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Savanna, Illinois. These hunts provided an opportunity to investigate lead ammunition as an exposure pathway to bald eagles. During 2012 and 2013, 57 white-tailed deer were harvested that included 25 deer shot with lead. The entrails from the 25 lead-shot deer were radiographed and showed that 36 percent contained lead ranging from 1 to 107 fragments per entrail.

    Spent shotgun shells were collected to quantify the amount of lead that was shot. The lead weight for each shell was determined from specifications provided at the manufacturers websites. The total weight of lead shot to harvest the 25 deer was 9,938 grains (644 grams).

    Laboratory studies show that 1.27 grains (82.5 milligrams) of lead is a lethal dose for a bald eagle. The 9,938 grains of lead contained an equivalent of 7,825 lethal doses. The amount of lead contained in each shot showed: a 20 gauge slug averaged 344 grains, equivalent weight to 271 lethal doses per slug; a 12 gauge slug averaged 421 grains, equivalent weight to 331 lethal doses per slug; and a .50 caliber muzzleloader bullet averaged 328 grains, equivalent weight to 258 lethal doses per bullet.

    Bald eagles were frequently observed circling above the hunt area. Road-killed deer and their entrails were placed in the hunt area to simulate wounded but not retrieved deer and discarded entrails. Motion sensor cameras documented a variety of scavengers dining on the deer carcasses and entrails including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, crows, raccoons, opossums and coyotes.

    Hunters are important conservationists and provide millions of dollars in license fees and excise taxes that fund wildlife programs annually. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers are promoting awareness to hunters about the potential exposure pathway from lead ammunition to bald eagles and other wildlife. Please share this story with others and encourage the voluntary use of non-lead ammunition.

  • 10/02/2014:  Endangered ferrets released on Arizona ranch, KJZZ 91.5
    (Link to the original article)


    WILLIAMS, Ariz. (AP) Fresh from being trained to hunt prairie dogs and maneuver the outdoors, a group of endangered black-footed ferrets was released Wednesday on a northern Arizona ranch to boost the population of the animals that once disappeared from the state.

    The release of 25 ferrets at the Espee Ranch near Williams marked the second reintroduction of the animals on private property in the country under an agreement with landowners that includes minimal land-use restrictions and no penalties if one of the ferrets accidentally is killed. The first was on a ranch near Pueblo, Colo., last year.

    "It's really the easiest way to make sure they won't be encumbered on their own land," said Steve Spangle, the Arizona field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    The ferrets chattered and flashed their teeth as they were carried in kennels to prairie dog burrows on the property owned by Babbitt Ranches where they'll make their home and hunt the rodents. The ferrets were hesitant to run out onto the vast expanse of grassland. One hissed at the crowd and flipped repeatedly in a tube before scurrying into the burrow minutes later, popping its head out once again as if to say a final goodbye.

    Scientists had written off the species as extinct until a solitary enclave of 18 was found near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981. The last one seen in Arizona before a reintroduction program began was in 1931 between Flagstaff and Williams.

    Before they could be released Wednesday, the young ferrets had to prove their survival skills at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colo. After getting a taste for prairie dog through feedings, the ferrets had to kill three prairie dogs on their own and stay outside for a month.

    "We have to have a reasonable chance of success before we release them," said Julie Lyke, deputy recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife. "Not all of them make it."

    The ferrets with yellowish-brown fur grow about two feet long and live about four years. Their success in the wild depends on how well they adapt from being in captivity and on the availability of prairie dogs. Periodic outbreaks of sylvatic plague have wiped out entire prairie dog colonies, some of which are in areas where ferrets have been reintroduced.

    At the Espee Ranch, the U.S. Geological Survey is testing a new vaccine in the form of peanut butter-flavored bait. Prairie dogs once lived on 20,000 acres of the ranch, but a 2010 outbreak of the plague reduced the prairie dog's presence to 3,000 acres before expanding to its current 5,000 acres, according to Jennifer Cordova of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

    Field trials of the vaccine began in 2012 at selected sites in seven states, and it will be a few years before scientists know whether it works, said Tonie Rocke, a USGS research scientist.

    Each of the ferrets released Wednesday has a microchip that allows wildlife officials to track them. Another population, which was the first reintroduced to Arizona in the Aubrey Valley near Seligman, now is considered sustainable with more than 100 breeding adults.

    The overall population must top 3,000 breeding adults for at least three years, meeting certain objectives in its historic range, before the ferrets could be removed from the endangered species list, said John Nystedt, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. The ferrets once were found across a range that stretched from Texas to the Canadian border.

    Many farmers and ranchers regard the ferrets' primary diet prairie dogs as a nuisance because they strip grass from grazing lands for food and to keep a better eye on predators. Bill Cordasco, president of Babbitt Ranches, said the company welcomed the ferrets as an opportunity to promote conservation not only of the endangered mammals but of the prairie dogs in testing the vaccine.

    He said the company had no plans to develop the portion of the cattle ranch on which the ferrets were released. The agreement with wildlife officials allows private landowners to change their minds about hosting an endangered species after a given time, he said. The animals then would be removed.

    "It allows you to really feel open about supporting this," Cordasco said.

  • 09/07/2014:  Avian influenza virus isolated in harbor seals poses a threat to humans, redOrbit
    (Link to the original article)


    A study led by St. Jude Childrens Research Hospital scientists found the avian influenza A H3N8 virus that killed harbor seals along the New England coast can spread through respiratory droplets and poses a threat to humans. The research appears in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature Communications.

    The avian H3N8 virus was isolated by scientists investigating the 2011 deaths of more than 160 harbor seals. Researchers discovered the virus had naturally acquired mutations in a key protein that previous laboratory research had shown allowed the highly pathogenic avian H5N1 virus to spread though respiratory droplets. Scientists reported that the avian H3N8 seal virus infected and grew in human lung cells. Researchers also found that the virus spread in ferrets though respiratory transmission, which is uncommon for avian flu viruses and raises concerns about possible person-to-person airborne spread of the harbor seal virus. Investigators found no evidence of human immunity to the strain.

    This study highlights a gain-of-function experiment that occurred in nature and shows us there are avian flu viruses out there beyond H5N1 and H7N9 that could pose a threat to humans, said corresponding author Stacey Schultz-Cherry, Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Infectious Diseases. In recent years, human cases of highly pathogenic avian H5N1 and H7N9 flu have been confirmed in countries around the world, with mortality rates approaching 60 percent.

    Avian H3N8 viruses are established in horses and dogs. This study raises a red flag about the threat this strain poses to humans exposed to animals infected with the virus, Schultz-Cherry said. While no human illness was linked to the 2011 harbor seal virus, a different flu virus has spread from infected seals to humans who came in close contact with the animals. Avian H3N8 is also believed to have triggered a human flu pandemic in the 1880s.

    The findings reinforce the need for continued surveillance of flu viruses circulating in wild and domestic animals to understand the risk the viruses pose to humans, said the studys first author Erik Karlsson, Ph.D., a St. Jude postdoctoral fellow.

    The H3N8 harbor seal virus caught the attention of researchers when sequencing showed the virus included two particular mutations in the hemagglutinin (HA) protein and a change in the PB2 gene. HA is carried on the surface of the flu virus. The virus depends on HA to bind to and infect cells. The PB2 mutation was associated with more severe illness in mice. The HA and PB2 changes were among a handful of genetic alterations that in 2012 other scientists reported were sufficient to allow the highly pathogenic H5N1 to spread in ferrets via respiratory droplets.

    In this study, two of the three animals exposed to the harbor seal virus via respiratory transmission became infected, although symptoms were mild. Airborne transmission did not occur with the five other avian viruses tested, but two of the viruses spread in ferrets that shared cages. Both viruses were close genetic relatives of the harbor seal virus. Scientists want to understand the genetic changes that make respiratory transmission of avian H3N8 virus possible and the likelihood that related flu viruses will or have acquired those alterations.

    Researchers also checked blood samples from 102 individuals vaccinated against seasonal flu strains between 2009 and 2011, including the human H3N2 flu strain. There was no evidence that seasonal flu vaccines protected against the harbor seal virus. The transmissibility of the seal H3N8 virus coupled with the apparent lack of immunity makes this strain a concern, researchers noted.

    The studys other St. Jude authors are Richard Webby and Sun Woo Yoon and Jordan Johnson, both formerly of St. Jude. The other authors are Hon S Ip and Jeffrey Hall, of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Wildlife Health Center, Madison, Wis., and Melinda Beck of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    The study was funded in part by contracts (N266200700005C, N266200700007C and N272201400006C) from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); grants (AI078090 and DK056350) from NIH; USGS and ALSAC.

  • 08/19/2014:  Indiana lawmakers discuss deer import ban, as feds decide against it, IndyStar
    (Link to the original article)


    Federal agricultural officials say they will not restrict the interstate shipment of captive deer despite disease concerns raised by scientists and six members of Congress.

    That decision, outlined in a letter from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, comes as a summer study committee made up of Indiana lawmakers met Tuesday to consider among other things a possible ban on deer imports.

    So far, 21 states have issued such bans, fearing the spread of the always-fatal deer ailment, chronic wasting disease.

    Vilsack said new rules for the nation's deer farms do enough to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis, while promoting the burgeoning deer industry, which primarily breeds deer with enormous antlers to be shot on fenced hunting preserved.

    In a letter to U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, Vilsack said the federal agency believes it has struck the right balance in "improving the domestic and international marketability" of the nation's deer farms while also keeping "strong safeguards" in place to prevent the spread of disease.

    "This is consistent with our successful approaches to addressing a number of other livestock diseases in the United States," Vilsack wrote. Moran and five other Democrats had requested a ban.

    The decision leaves the matter to states like Indiana, where consensus is not easy to obtain. In Missouri the governor recently vetoed its legislature after it tried to block the state's wildlife agency which had called for ban on imports.

    In Indiana, lawmakers heard four hours of testimony Tuesday, but the panel appeared no closer to making a decision on that front.

    Both the study session and Moran's concerns were in response to an Indianapolis Star investigation that uncovered case after case linking the industry to the spread of chronic wasting disease.

    Lawmakers heard from four wildlife disease experts called to testify by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. They cited documented cases in which the interstate captive-deer industry was linked to the spread of diseases. They also testified that CWD is spreading rapidly among wild herds in some states and states have spent millions of dollars trying to contain the disease.

    CWD, a brain disease similar to mad cow, has been found in 22 states. The Star's investigation revealed that in half of those states, CWD was found first in a commercial deer operation. There is no approved live test for the disease, and wildlife officials across the country say escapes from deer farms and preserves are common.

    But the panel also heard testimony from four in-state veterinarians who said current disease testing requirements from the Indiana Board of Animal Health are more than adequate.

    "We have probably one of the most robust regulatory structures in the country as far as keeping CWD out," said Darryl Ragland, a Purdue University veterinarian who works for deer farmers. "We have a program in place that is working."

    While the committee was largely silent, and asked only a few questions, it became clear that at least some lawmakers were leaning in one direction.

    State Rep. Sean Eberhart, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, repeatedly pointed out that there's nothing to stop wild deer infected CWD from walking into the state, so why crack down on deer farmers.

    Bryan Richards, chronic wasting disease project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey, responded that CWD spreads slowly in the wild, but if "we put it in a truck, we can move disease at 65, 70 mph across the landscape."

    "Will it get here over time? Certainly a possibility. Do you want it sooner or later?" Richards said. "That's something I believe that through preventative measures, you can have an impact on time of arrival."

    Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, countered such testimony by saying that his industry is participating in new research that may some day create a CWD vaccine and a reliable live test for the disease. Schafer noted his industry also was instrumental in developing a blood test for bovine TB that has dramatically reduced its spread in captive deer. Vilsack in his letter also noted that there have been no cases of TB in a deer farm since 2009.

    "The industry is here for the solution," Schafer said. "We're not part of the problem."

    Myron Miller, vice president of the Indiana Deer and Elk Farmers Association, also explained how far farmers are willing to go to keep their herds disease free. He described how he had to shoot a $10,000 breeding doe that had come from an out-of-state facility suspected of having CWD so that it could be tested for the disease.

    He said that he was glad to do so to ensure his herds were free of the disease, but that didn't make any less emotionally and financially painful.

    "We bore that burden," Miller said.

    The committee will reconvene at a later date to determine whether to issue recommendations to the legislature for a possible change in state law.

  • 08/18/2014:  Indiana DNR calls scientific heavy hitters to captive-deer hearing, IndyStar
    (Link to the original article)


    For years, the state agency with the most at stake in the ongoing legislative debate over what to do about the disease-prone captive-deer industry has been largely silent.

    Instead, the loudest voices lawmakers heard were from hunting-preserve owners and deer farmers who have lobbied hard against any effort to strongly regulate the industry because they say it will hurt rural Hoosier economies.

    That's going to change on Tuesday.

    Officials at Indiana's Department of Natural Resources have asked four out-of-state wildlife disease experts to testify before the 14-member Agriculture and Natural Resources Interim Study Committee.

    One of the experts is among the foremost federal authorities on chronic wasting disease, an infectious brain disease that's always fatal to deer and that's been found in 22 states. The disease and the extent to which the captive deer industry is responsible for its spread is a significant point of contention in the debate over how strongly the industry should be regulated.

    The DNR's move is significant because in recent years its officials have not testified before lawmakers as they have debated legislation favorable to Indiana's hunting preserve and deer-farming industry.

    DNR officials have long worried that CWD could be shipped into Indiana in an infected deer riding in a farmer's truck trailer. They also believe high-fence hunting deer hunting on private fenced reserves is an affront to hunting ethics and long-standing wildlife management philosophies that say deer are a public resource and should not be held for private profit.

    In this industry, deer are sold as part of a boutique agricultural market that breeds bucks with antlers sometimes twice as large as the record for animals killed in the wild. Some breeding stock can command six-figure prices. There are close to 400 deer farms in Indiana.

    It's possible that deer-farming industry officials also will have scientists testify on their behalf at Tuesday's committee meeting. Representatives at three state and national trade associations representing deer farmers didn't respond to interview requests.

    'Everyone knows where they stand'

    The DNR's silence about legislation in recent years has vexed the industry's staunchest opponents, including Michael Crider, a former DNR law-enforcement chief who's now a Republican state senator.

    "The people who weren't really present in the room was DNR," said Crider of Greenfield. "But they just have to be. They're the local experts on the topic."

    Barbara Simpson, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, agreed, but she said the agency was reluctant to openly discuss deer farming because it was embroiled in a nasty legal fight over high-fence hunting in Indiana. In 2005, the DNR issued an order attempting to shut down the state's fenced deer hunting preserves, after a case in which deer bred for big antlers were being shot in enclosures so small that officials called them "killing pens." The preserves sued, challenging the order.

    Last year, a Harrison County judge ruled that the DNR had no authority over captive-deer hunting because the animals on the preserves were privately owned. The attorney general's office has appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, the four deer-hunting preserves left in Indiana are operating without oversight from the DNR.

    "DNR was very reluctant to come out one way or another in public, although certainly everyone knows where they stand," Simpson said.

    For its part, the agency isn't saying much in advance of the meeting.

    In response to an interview request from The Star, spokesman Phil Bloom replied in an email that the DNR is preparing for the meeting and "will make its presentation at that forum."

    The committee's chairman, Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, said he asked the agency as well as the Indiana Board of Animal Health, which regulates livestock operators, to provide scientific input.

    Lehe said he wants the issues of disease to be the focus, not a debate on the merits of high-fence hunting. The committee has been tasked with discussing whether the state should continue to keep its borders open to shipments of farm-raised deer or close them like 21 states have done.

    Lehe's committee can only make recommendations to the legislature, which will reconvene early next year.

    What's at stake

    This spring, Senate President Pro Tempore David Long called for a summer study session on deer breeding in the wake of an Indianapolis Star investigation of the industry, its practices and the potential for spreading disease.

    Wildlife officials across the country say there is compelling circumstantial evidence that captive deer farms and hunting preserves have spread disease, as deer are shipped across state lines to be killed in the private preserves and as breeding stock.

    CWD, a brain disease similar to mad cow, is of particular concern. It has been found in 22 states. The Star's investigation revealed that in half of those states, CWD was found first in a commercial deer operation.

    There is no approved live test for the disease, and wildlife officials across the country say escapes are common. In one case in Indiana in 2012, a buck escaped from a Southern Indiana farm after being shipped into the state from a herd in Pennsylvania were animals later tested positive for CWD.

    The Pennsylvania buck was never found.

    After The Star's investigation published, Long said he would be open to discussing whether to close the state's borders following the lead of Florida and New York, which closed their borders to imports last year. State wildlife officials in Missouri have since proposed doing the same.

    Long, who once compared high-fence hunting to dog fighting, told The Star this spring that lawmakers had been "getting one side of this: That these preserves really aren't as bad as they're made out to be."

    Scientists to testify

    But on Tuesday it's clear the 14 lawmakers on the committee will hear from what Long describes as that other side. According to the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the DNR's list of speakers include:

    Dave Clausen, a veterinarian and the former chairman of Wisconsin's natural resources commission. Clausen is an outspoken advocate for tougher regulations on captive deer operations. He's also familiar with the consequences of what happens when chronic wasting disease takes hold in a state. In one region in Wisconsin, nearly one in three bucks is infected with CWD. The state has spent more than $30 million to combat the disease.

    Missouri Department of Conservation Veterinarian Kelly Straka. Missouri has proposed closing its borders to deer imports following the detection of CWD linked to two hunting preserves. In 2010 and 2011, 11 infected deer were found in the two preserves, then 10 others were found in the wild within two miles of one of the pens and nowhere else in the state. Wildlife officials say they are 99 percent certain the disease did not exist in the wild in Missouri until it was introduced on the preserves.

    Bryan Richards, chronic wasting disease project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. Richards is regarded as one of the top federal experts on the disease.

    Kip Adams, a former deer biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association. The QDMA is a national hunter-sponsored organization that's opposed to the interstate trade in captive deer because of the disease risks.

    Who will testify for the deer industry?

    Lehe, the committee chairman, said he also reached out to the deer industry advocates to encourage them to bring their own scientific experts, but he didn't know who might attend the hearing.

    There are a group of industry-supportive professors and veterinarians who have testified in past debates. They downplay the risks posed by the interstate deer trade, saying that they're minimal, that it's impossible to track the path of chronic wasting disease with absolute certainty, that deer herds have not vanished in areas where CWD infection rates are high, and that there are no known cases of CWD jumping the species barrier to infect humans.

    Some say that CWD is just a "political disease," dreamed up by opponents such as animal-rights activists who find the industry distasteful.

    The panel session be held at 10 a.m. in room 404 of the Indiana Statehouse on West Washington Street.

    Lehe said it was unlikely any action would be taken following the testimony. He suspects the committee will need to schedule another meeting before issuing recommendations for any changes in state law.

  • 08/13/2014:  Avian botulism and the Great Lakes, Michigan State University Extension
    (Link to the original article)


    The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) confirmed on August 12, 2014 that about 24 mallard ducks died from type C avian botulism along the southern shore of East Grand Traverse Bay. The ducks were found in a localized, small area near the Acme Township/East Bay Township shoreline in Grand Traverse County.

    What is avian botulism and should we be concerned?

    Avian botulism is a food poisoning whereby waterfowl ingest a toxin which is produced by the naturally occurring rod-shaped bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Typically, these native bacteria live in a highly resistant spore stage and are of no impact to fish and wildlife; however, under the right circumstances (usually anaerobic conditions), the bacteria will germinate, produce and make bio-available one of natures most potent toxicants. The toxin causes muscular paralysis. Often the birds are unable to hold their head up and may drown or die from respiratory failure. Avian botulism is also known as limberneck, due to the birds inability to hold up its head.

    While small invertebrates (often maggots) are not impacted by the toxin, they often serve to pass the toxin up the food chain. A rotting carcass that has the botulism toxin in it and is decomposing along the shore can often be a source for maggots, and other scavenging birds such as gulls can possibly get botulism. This maggot-cycle is particularly important for type C botulism.

    What is type C botulism vs. type E botulism?

    Type C avian botulism is the neuromuscular disease which typically affects dabbler ducks, and possibly other shorebirds, that forage in the mud in both inland and Great Lake coastlines (see the poster from Michigan Sea Grant - Dabblers & Divers: Great Lakes Waterfowl) and eat invertebrates directly. Type C impacts are felt in both inland lake and pond environments as well as in the Great Lakes shorelines.

    Type E avian botulism usually impacts diver ducks in the Great Lakes where they dive deep and eat fish/mussels. Avian botulism outbreaks (type E) have occurred, with increased frequency in Lake Michigan along the northwest Michigan region since 2006, typically during the September-October-November time frame.

    The mallard dabbler duck is the most abundant local duck in the Grand Traverse Bay region with strong population numbers and is the single species that was affected in the recent outbreak confirmed by the DNR. It is doubtful that a significant type C botulism outbreak would seriously impact population numbers of this species.

    However, diving duck species such as common loons are a noteworthy species that have been impacted by type E botulism over a recent number of years. Common loons are a species of special concern in Michigan, and the full impact of the botulism kills are not known and a possible concern for loon population impacts in North America.

    Michigan Sea Grant has published information and frequently asked questions concerning botulism which is applicable to both Type C and Type E, including:

    Is it safe to walk dogs on the beach after a bird kill?

    If you bring pets to the shore, keep them away from dead animals on the beach. Dead wildlife may contain potentially harmful bacteria or toxins. In cases where you think your pet may have ingested a contaminated carcass, monitor them for signs of sickness and contact a veterinarian if you suspect they are falling ill.

    Do I have to wash my hands after I touch a dead bird?

    Yes, you should always wash your hands after handling any wildlife. Ideally, you should also wear gloves to handle any dead animal.

    Can I swim in the water?

    You are not at risk for botulism poisoning by swimming in Great Lakes waters. Botulism is only contracted by ingesting fish or birds contaminated with the toxin. If you have concerns about water quality, contact your local health department or swim in a regulated beach area.

    How can people who want to help clean up the beach after a bird kill best protect themselves?

    People who handle dead wildlife should wear protective gear, such as disposable rubber gloves or an inverted plastic bag over their hands. In cases where a diseased or dead bird is handled without gloves, hands should be thoroughly washed with hot, soapy water or an anti-bacterial cleaner.

    What is the best way to dispose of dead fish/birds in my area, especially after a botulism outbreak?

    Be sure to follow local wildlife agency (e.g., Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, etc.) recommendations in handling dead fish and wildlife. Wear disposable, rubber or plastic gloves or invert a plastic bag over your hands when handling sick, dead, or dying fish, birds or other animals. In certain areas, burying of the carcasses is allowed, while in other areas incineration may be recommended. If birds are to be collected, they should be placed in heavy plastic bags to avoid the spread of botulism-containing maggots. The major goal should be to protect yourself, while also ensuring that the dead birds or fish are not available for consumption by other wildlife.

    Any dead or dying birds that are found along the south shore of Grand Traverse Bay should be reported to the local Traverse City DNR office at 231-922-5280, ext. 6832. Staff from the Grand Traverse MSU Extension office has been involved in providing educational programs on avian botulism for several years. If you would like a program, please contact MSU Extension at 231.922.4628 or e-mail to breederl@msu.edu.

  • 07/17/2014:  Prairie dogs vaccinated for sylvatic plague at Wind Cave National Park, Rapid City Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    Greg Schroeder picked up a distressed prairie dog that was jumping back and forth in a cage and scanned the tag under its skin to see if it had been captured before.

    Bison grazed in the distance on the eastern edge of Wind Cave National Park where Schroeder was capturing the prairie dogs and carrying them to a trailer where they would be sedated as part of an effort to immunize them against disease.

    After they were sedated, the prairie dogs were weighed, measured for height, tested for fleas and then a whisker sample was taken. The whisker was then viewed under UV light to see if a vaccine, previously embedded in gelatin bait, was present to prevent the spread of sylvatic plague.

    Sylvatic plague is a form of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, according to the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program. The disease is transmitted to other animals and people by fleas.

    The threat of the disease spreading to humans is minimal now, mainly because of advanced hygiene and antibiotics. But prairie dogs are not so lucky.

    All of the testing done Tuesday afternoon, which takes about 10 minutes for each prairie dog, was done in an effort to keep them alive, primarily to keep the endangered black-footed ferret's meal of choice thriving.

    The black-footed ferret, thought to be extinct until 1981, feeds almost entirely on prairie dogs, even though the two species are relatively the same size, said Endangered Species Chief Bridget Fahey with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    "Think about a cow and a wolf: You've got one that's more of a grazer, not really a fighter, and you've got one that's a carnivore," she said. "They ferrets catch their prey essentially by their fierce grasping jaws they're just built for it. They're very cute, but they're very fierce."

    Generally, efforts to stop the spread of the disease in prairie dogs occur through dusting individual burrows with pesticides to kill infected fleas. Work has now shifted to field delivery of the vaccine through bait, which can last at least nine months, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

    Although an outbreak of the plague has not been seen in Wind Cave National Park, the disease was found in southeastern Custer County in 2004; in Pine Ridge in 2005; and at the Conata Basin in 2008, said South Dakota Field Supervisor Scott Larson with the wildlife service.

    "We saw really rapid decline in prairie dog populations in Conata Basin, where we also have ferrets," he said. "If these trials prove successful, the idea is that it can be another tool to hang on to some prairie dogs where we really want them and where we want ferrets."

    This summer marks the second year of a three-year study, with 34 sites in seven states all distributing the vaccine and then testing prairie dogs, said David Bergman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    There are also two other testing sites in South Dakota, one near Wall and the other in Lower Brule, Schroeder said.

    Although there is a vaccine for the black-footed ferret to fight the sylvatic plague, Fahey said it is challenging to administer the vaccine once the animal is wild.

    "Controlling the disease is one of the most difficult things," she said. "The number one thing we can do, because the ferrets do rely on prairie dogs for food, is to be able to keep enough prairie dogs alive at our reintroduction site so they can survive into the future."

    Ultimately, Fahey hopes to get the black-footed ferret introduced in all 11 states in its native range.

    "Anything we learn (in South Dakota) how to slow or control the spread of plague is going to be applicable to our program overall," she said.

    The prairie dog is vital to more animals than just the black-footed ferret. Animals such as bison and owls also depend on prairie dogs, which landowners sometimes view as pests, Larson said.

    "Owls live in their burrows too, but there are a number of animals that either live in the prairie dog towns or live near them," he said. "Vegetation also tends to stay greener for bison because the prairie dogs clip it so it stays green longer."

    Results for the study are expected in 2016 at the earliest, and if successful, will be regulated as an experimental vaccine for use by government agencies.

  • 07/17/2014:  Researchers test plague vaccination in prairie dog populations near Wind Cave, KEVN Black Hills Fox
    (Link to the original article)


    A new program in which prairie dogs are being vaccinated for plague is being tested in Wind Cave National Park.

    The new vaccination program is being undertaken by several Federal agencies all interested in its potential for use with other animals.



    Even though plague has not been found in the Park's prairie dog population so far, scientists with the U.S.G.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Park Service are testing the effects of an oral vaccine that was administered to some of the wild prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park beginning about two weeks ago. Samples of the vaccine were mixed with a food sample that the prairie dogs are known to like, and the samples were left outside their burrows.

    Wednesday, Park technicians, biologists, graduate students, and veterinarians taking part in the program gathered up prairie dogs that had been captured in portable cage traps put in place in the past few days.

    The captured prairie dogs were put under sedation and tested for several different variables, including the effects of the vaccination.

    Scott Larson says, "So far, it looks really good. So we tested it in a laboratory. We had good uptake and had good ability to vaccinate critters there: prairie dogs and other small mammals. And putting it out we learned we get really good bate uptake."

    Officials from other government agencies are observing the procedures involved with the vaccination program and the testing results to determine if the techniques might be practical for use with other animals.

    Plague affects not only prairie dogs, but through the fleas that carry the disease, can infect dogs, cats, rats, mice, woodchucks, marmots, and a host of other animals.

    Yes. This is the same plague that caused the death of one-third of the human race 650 years ago. It's called bubonic plague in humans, sylvatic plague in wildlife.

    And so getting rid of plague in prairie dog populations will also enhance human health prospects as well.

    Kevin Castle says, "And as we recognize how inter-related human health and animal health and environmental health are, doing what we can to protect the grassland eco-system and animals from the plague is definitely gong to have an impact on human health too eventually."

    Humans have apparently built up a substantial immunity to plague over the last 650 years. But there are still cases that still emerge occasionally in the western U.S.

    Plague is an old enemy of mankind, and an enemy of many kinds of animals. And now a new government program is aiming to eradicate it.

  • 07/17/2014:  Prairie dogs tested for the presence of a vaccine at Wind Cave National Park, Kota Territory News - ABC
    (Link to the original article)


    Prairie dogs at Wind Cave National Park are being trapped and tested for the presence of a vaccine. Different agencies are working together to test a vaccine to prevent the spread of Sylvatic Plague in prairie dog populations. It could help protect other animals.



    "We wanted to share with the public this exciting story of research that we are doing to protect the endangered black-footed ferret," said Bridget Fahey, Endangered Species Chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Region.



    Endangered species practitioners hope this study helps the black-footed ferrets. "In the wild one of their biggest threats is plague, plague is an introduced disease that's transmitted by flees and it can be transmitted to wildlife by prairie dog species and the black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs for their prey," Fahey said.



    And plague has a dramatic effect on prairie dogs. Christopher Brand, with USGS, said, "When plague hits a prairie dog colony it can wipe out 90 to 100 percent of prairie dogs on that colony."

    Several tests, including drawing blood to see the presence of the vaccine, combing for fleas, which can be tested for plague and pulling hair samples, are being done. Greg Schroeder, with Wind Cave National Park, said, "With this oral plague vaccine, we are trying to do it in a different approach and give the prairie dogs a vaccine that will prevent them from getting the plague."

    Schroeder hopes it will be successful. "It will be a real game changer and really help us manage plague out there in the natural system," Schroeder said.

    The field trials began in several different states in 2013, and they will continue until 2016.

  • 05/30/2014:  Glow-in-the-dark tool lets scientists find diseased bats, Science Daily
    (Link to the original article)


    Scientists working to understand the devastating bat disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) now have a new, non-lethal tool to identify bats with WNS lesions -- ultraviolet, or UV, light.

    If long-wave UV light is directed at the wings of bats with white-nose syndrome, it produces a distinctive orange-yellow fluorescence. This orange-yellow glow corresponds directly with microscopic skin lesions that are the current "gold standard" for diagnosing white-nose syndrome in bats.

    "When we first saw this fluorescence of a bat wing in a cave, we knew we were on to something," said Greg Turner from Pennsylvania Game Commission, who has been using this technique since 2010. "It was difficult to have to euthanize bats to diagnose WNS when the disease itself was killing so many. This was a way to get a good indication of which bats were infected and take a small biopsy for testing rather than sacrifice the whole bat."

    Millions of bats in the United States have died from the fungal disease called White nose syndrome which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans (Pd). White-nose syndrome was first seen in New York during the winter of 2006. Since then, the disease has spread to 25 US states and 5 Canadian provinces.

    A significant problem in studying WNS has been the unreliability of visual onsite inspection when checking for WNS in bats during hibernation; the only way to confirm presence of disease was to euthanize the bats and send them back to a laboratory for testing.

    "Ultraviolet light was first used in 1925 to look for ringworm fungal infections in humans," said Carol Meteyer, USGS scientist and one of the lead authors on the paper. "The fact that this technique could be transferred to bats and have such remarkable precision for indicating lesions positive for Pd invasion is very exciting."

    To test the UV light's effectiveness, bats with and without white-nose syndrome in North America were tested by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, first using UV light, then using traditional histological techniques to verify the UV light's accuracy.

    In the USGS lab testing, 98.8 percent of bats with the orange-yellow fluorescence tested positive for white-nose syndrome, whereas 100 percent of those that did not fluoresce tested negative for the disease. Targeted biopsies showed that pinpoint areas of fluorescence coincided with the microscopic wing lesions that are characteristic for WNS.

    Researchers in the Czech Republic then tested the UV light-assisted biopsy technique in the field, using it to collect small samples from areas of bat wing that fluoresced under UV light. In this study, 95.5 percent of wing biopsies that targeted areas of fluorescence were microscopically positive for WNS lesions, while again 100 percent of bats that did not fluoresce were negative for WNS.

    Combining research from two continents demonstrates that UV diagnostics might be applicable worldwide with great sensitivity and specificity in detecting WNS.

    "Moreover, the technique hurts the animal minimally and bats fly away after providing data for research," said Natalia Martinkova from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. "This makes UV fluorescence an ideal tool for studying endangered species."

    This effort included partners in the USFWS, state and federal biologists, the Czech Science Foundation, and the National Speleological Society of the USA.

    This research article, "Nonlethal Screening of Bat-wing Skin with the Use of Ultraviolet Fluorescence to Detect Lesions Indicative of White-Nose Syndrome," was recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

  • 05/09/2014:  State: Coral disease high priority, The Garden Island
    (Link to the original article)


    LIHUE A year and a half after a U.S. Geological Survey report described Kauais coral disease outbreak as an epidemic, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Tuesday it will lead an investigation to identify research and treatment options.

    It is the first time that DLNRs Division of Aquatic Resources has formed a management response team to address coral disease, according to officials.

    DAR Administrator Frazer McGilvray said that when the department first learned of the black band disease, it acted to support ongoing research by the University of Hawaii and USGS.

    Now were able to apply that information to the next step, he wrote in an email Tuesday. Because this issue is high priority we are now forming this team.

    The Kauai Management Response Team, which includes partners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, USGS and UH, began meeting in January. Earlier this month, DAR called together its partners for a third time to address the ongoing outbreak.

    The team is tasked with reviewing the latest data about the disease, identifying the next steps in research and considering management options, according to a release. To do so, the DAR is actively implementing its Rapid Response Contingency Plan, which provides the division with a framework to respond to these types of events.

    Tuesdays announcement was welcomed by those who have been studying the disease from the get-go.

    Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at UH, who was instrumental in developing the RRCP, has traveled to Kauai several times to study the disease and now serves on the management team.

    She called DARs decision to lead a management team as a step in the right direction.

    Aeby compared the situation facing Kauais reefs to someone discovering that the foundation of their house has started to crack. You dont just shrug your shoulders, you work to fix the problem, she said.

    To me this is all good news, Aeby said. I say the more minds to ponder these things the better.

    Terry Lilley, a Hanalei biologist, videographer and Eyes of the Reef volunteer who first alerted scientists of the outbreak, said he couldnt be happier about the collaborative effort. However, he wished it had happened two years ago, when he began sending out emails.

    Im stoked, this is absolutely wonderful, he said of the DAR announcement. They just got a really late start on this, and its already in an advanced stage of killing the reef.

    Research indicates that the cyanobacterial disease outbreak is affecting three species of montipora, or rice, corals. It is predominantly on the North Shore and seems to be occurring in seasonal hot spots of infection, with Kee and Tunnels beaches having the highest levels of disease, according to DLNR.

    This information is essential to determine if there are appropriate management options that will facilitate the healing of the affected coral reef areas, McGilvray said in a release.

    Of 21 surveyed reef sites on Kauais North Shore, 18 86 percent showed signs of the infection, according to DLNR.

    Scientists, including Aeby, have already discovered that treating infected corals with a type of marine epoxy has been successful in stopping the diseases progression.

    Among those who will support the next stage of UH field work later this summer is Kauai DAR aquatic biologist Don Heacock.

    The work will include additional surveys and collecting water, sediment and coral tissue samples to look for contaminants and toxins. Heacock said that while scientists have pinpointed cyanobacteria as the cause of the disease, they have not figured out the environmental stressor, or trigger.

    We dont usually get sick unless were stressed, he said, adding that corals are no different. We need to find out right now, today, whats causing this.

    DAR has also launched a reef response website, which includes information about coral disease and updates on the Kauai teams progress.

  • 05/09/2014:  State forms response team for Kauai coral disease, The State
    (Link to the original article)


    LIHUE, HAWAII The state is forming a new management team to help respond to an outbreak of coral disease off Kauai's north shore.

    The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Tuesday black band coral disease is affecting three species of rice corals. The outbreak is predominantly on Kauai's north shore. It appears to show up in seasonal "hot spots."

    Division of Aquatic Resources Administrator Frazer McGilvray says this information is essential to determine options for healing the reef. Coral experts identified the outbreak a few years ago and have been studying it since.

    The department is supporting research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Hawaii.

  • 05/03/2014:  Lawmakers seek review of captive deer industry, newsobserver.com
    (Link to the original article)


    INDIANAPOLIS Two Indiana lawmakers are calling for a study of Indiana's high-fence hunting operations and the disease risks associated with the state's nearly 400 deer farms following a newspaper investigation that examined the risks and ethical concerns of the captive-deer industry.

    State Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and Rep. Sean Eberhart, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, say lawmakers need to analyze the disease risks and how to regulate hunting preserves.

    "The Legislature would be well advised to get some facts on what's going on in the rest of the country and to see how some of the other states are responding to this," Long said.

    Indiana lawmakers have spent more than a decade trying to reach agreement on legislation about high-fenced hunting preserves, with no success. A bill that would have set regulatory standards for preserves was narrowly defeated this year in the Senate.

    That leaves the state's four hunting preserves to offer hunts without oversight from wildlife officials. Hunting methods aren't governed by agricultural humane slaughter standards, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1fucVoY ).

    The captive-deer industry is a $1 billion endeavor in which owners breed animals with huge antlers and ship them to fenced preserves, where they're shot by hunters willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the trophies. A Star investigation earlier this year found that the industry's primary risk is the spread of chronic wasting disease, a mad cow-like brain disorder that is always fatal to deer.

    The disease has never been found in Indiana, but officials worry that could change if the state continues to allow imports of live deer. Because there is no approved test for the disease in live animals, 21 states have already banned the importation of live deer.

    Long said he's willing to consider closing the state's borders to deer from other states to prevent an outbreak.

    Indiana still allows imports from states where chronic wasting disease has not been found. But five Indiana farms were quarantined after state officials learned deer shipped in from Pennsylvania could have been exposed to the disease. The disease hadn't been reported in Pennsylvania when the deer were sent to Indiana.

    Pennsylvania agricultural officials said a 5-year-old doe that once lived on a Punxsutawney, Penn., farm with more than 200 other deer tested positive this spring for the disease after it died. Deer from the farm were sold and sent to farms in Indiana and eight other states.

    "Any one of these (farms) could have CWD-positive deer today," said Bryan Richards, the chronic wasting disease project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

    Shawn Schafer, the North American Deer Farmers Association's executive director, said there's no need to limit interstate movement of deer because state and federal officials test captive deer when they die and use farm records to track shipments and find other infected animals.

    "This isn't a raging, blazing case of disease running rampant throughout the industry," he said.

    The Star, however, found poor record-keeping often hampered efforts to track outbreaks.

  • 04/11/2014:  Researchers: We Shared The Flu Virus With Olympic Peninsula Sea Otters, KPLU 88.5
    (Link to the original article)


    Humans are particularly generous with the flu, otter-wrangling scientists have found.

    People shared the 2009 swine flu epidemic with ferrets, dogs, cats, raccoons and pigs, and new research shows even wild sea otters in Washington state got hit.

    "These otters, which we think were living in a relatively pristine environment off the Olympic Peninsula, were exposed to pathogens that are more commonly associated with people," said Virologist Hon Ip with the U.S. Geological Survey, who co-authored the study published in the May 2014 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

    Testing Sea Otters On The Peninsula

    In 2011, some of Ip's colleagues went out to the Olympic Peninsula coast and donned some stealthy scuba equipment that allowed them to dive under unsuspecting sea otters without sending bubbles bumping into their floating backs. They netted some otters, took quick blood samples and released them.

    Out of 30 otters tested, 21 had traces of certain antibodies that indicated that at one point, their immune systems had battled the 2009 H1N1 strain. (The testing took place two years after the flu passed, so they don't know if otters can get the same runny noses, nausea and fevers as infected people.)

    Transmission Goes Both Ways

    The question of how people come into contact with otters and enough so to get them sick is an unsolved puzzle. It could have to do with another animal that catches the virus from people on land, then passes it to sea otters in the water. Elephant seals are the only other marine mammal known to have been infected with the pandemic H1N1 flu.

    Regardless of how they got it, the fact that otters can be exposed to a human pandemic virus is an important finding. For one, it means the animals could be susceptible to a deadlier strain.

    Ip says the sea otters may have dodged a bullet in 2009. That virus, confusingly referred to as swine flu, proved widespread yet mild for humans. It also didn't make a dent in the sea otter population. But influenza strains are constantly evolving, and something as severe as the Spanish flu of 1918 in which some patients woke up in the morning feeling fine, and died by nightfall could crop up again. Since transmission can go both ways, that could be bad for sea otters and people alike.

    "The finding that sea otters are capable of being infected with influenza A virus means that a virus that will infect sea otters is likely to be able to infect us as well, too," Ip said. "So it may come back the other way around."

    Other Marine Mammals, Other Germs

    Washington sea otters weren't the only marine mammals to be infected.

    "Elephant seals also got exposed to the same strain of flu," said LeAnn White, a wildlife disease specialist and co-author of the paper. "They have a bit more contact with people because they haul out onto land more often, so there's potential for more contact with them." Whales have contracted earlier flu strains.

    Another important finding was that otters also had increased exposure to other pathogens that tend to circulate among people, including a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is commonly transmitted through contact with domestic cat poop. Tests in 2002 showed that about 58 percent of the otters had been exposed to the parasite. By 2011, the exposure rate jumped to 97 percent, tests showed. There's no telling how that happened.

  • 04/09/2014:  Ivanpah project described as deadly trap for wildlife, The Press-Enterprise
    (Link to the original article)


    When hundreds of thousands of mirrors focus solar energy on the 460-foot towers at Ivanpah solar plant in northeastern San Bernardino County, butterflies, dragonflies and other winged insects are attracted to the intense white glow like moths to a porch light.

    Insect-eating birds pursue the bugs, and then come the falcons and other raptors to snag the smaller birds.

    And when they fly into the heat zone as hot as 800 degrees around the towers, they are maimed and die.

    Investigators from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, in a report kept confidential until this week, describe the power towers as a mega trap that claims layers of species in the same food chain. The lab is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    There were hundreds upon hundreds of butterflies (including monarchs, Danaus plexippus) and dragonfly carcasses, the investigators said. Some showed singeing, and many appeared to have just fallen from the sky. Birds were also observed feeding on the insects. At times birds flew into the solar flux and ignited.

    Ivanpahs developer, BrightSource Energy, wants permission to build a similar plant north of Interstate 10 near Desert Center in Riverside County. State officials have not approved the application, in part because of concern about bird mortality.

    BrightSource officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

    Jeff Holland, spokesman for plant operator NRG, was critical of the report.

    Given that Ivanpah has only been operational for a short period of time, it is premature to determine the significance and extent of impacts to insects, birds, or bats, he said in an email. Ivanpah went online in late December last year after months of testing.

    He also said the report presents conclusions regarding the severity of impacts and proposed recommendations which are not supported by scientific literature.

    The company already is monitoring bird deaths in cooperation with state and federal agencies, he said. The Ivanpah plant is expected to generate enough carbon-free electricity for 140,000 homes when running at peak capacity.

    Climate change is by far the biggest concern for all forms of wildlife on the planet, and we have spent millions of dollars on projects like Ivanpah in our quest to find ways to provide clean, sustainable and renewable energy, Holland said.

    The federal analysis says the number of birds killed around the towers could be far higher than the tallies being reported to state and federal agencies. Data compiled by BrightSource says that in 2013, 135 dead birds were found at Ivanpah. At two plants that use different technologies Genesis, west of Blythe, and Desert Sunlight, north of Desert Center the numbers were 140 and 105, respectively, according to the BrightSource data.

    According to the federal report, smaller birds may be burning up completely; injured ones may be dying off site; and those that fall to the ground may be carried away by scavengers.

    Forensics lab staff observed a falcon or falcon-like bird with a plume of smoke streaming from its tail as it passed through the heat zone. The bird lost stability and descended, but the team could not locate it. The investigators could not identify many burning objects, which they call streamers.

    We observed many streamer events, the report said. It is claimed that these events represent the combustion of loose debris, or insects. Although some of the events are likely that, there were instances in which the amount of smoke produced by the ignition could only be explained by a larger flammable biomass such as a bird. Indeed, OLE (office of law enforcement) staff observed birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently becoming a streamer.

    OLE staff observed an average of one streamer event every two minutes.

    The report recommends a much more intensive study of what is happening to the wildlife.

    There has to be more robust monitoring than we are asking the solar companies to undertake, said Jill Birchell, a special agent in charge of law enforcement for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Pacific Southwest Region.

    The report, completed in January, was made public this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request The Press-Enterprise filed in February.

    Investigators also examined bird deaths at Genesis, which uses curved mirrors to heat fluid in pipes, and Desert Sunlight, which relies on photovoltaic panels. At Ivanpah, three giant fields of mirrors 160,000 panels in all focus heat upward to the towers to make steam and generate power.

    The report did not identify which technology is more harmful, but Birchell said the operators of all three plants need to find ways to reduce the number of deaths.

    The authors of the report recommend that Ivanpahs operators install video cameras to track birds entering and leaving heat zones. They also want two years of daily surveys for bird carcasses at the three plants and ask for strategies to discourage scavengers from carrying bird carcasses from the solar sites.

    The 28-page report further recommends that Ivanpah suspend operations during peak migration times for certain species.

    In February, David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG, told reporters at a plant dedication ceremony that he wants to get the number of bird deaths at Ivanpah down to zero. Officials representing the Genesis and Desert Sunlight have said earlier this year they that are working with federal and state officials to reduce bird deaths.

    The report made public this week comes just as BrightSource is asking the California Energy Commission to reconsider the companys proposed Palen plant, a few miles from Desert Center near Palen Dry Lake. An energy commission panel in December recommended denial because of concerns about birds, energy storage and Native American cultural resources.

    BrightSource has since filed papers with the Energy Commission contending the power towers are no more lethal than other technologies, and that birds could be kept away with noise canons, chemical fogs, dogs or other deterrents. The energy commission is expected to reconsider the Palen project this month.

    Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the report released this week Avian Mortality at Solar Energy Facilities in Southern California: A Preliminary Analysis raises many questions about the consequence of solar towers on winged life, especially the accuracy of the bird carcass counts. Those questions need to be answered before proceeding with additional projects using that technology, she said.

    Roger Johnson, the state energy commission deputy director for siting, transmission and environmental protection, said he has shot photographs and videos of white flashes in Ivanpahs heat zones. He said he cant say for sure that he observed birds meeting fiery deaths because he couldnt link a specific flash to a carcass.

    But he said a team of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey will spend about 10 days at Ivanpah in the coming weeks, using sophisticated radar and video equipment to track insects and birds as they fly near the towers. The research team will return for another 10 days in the fall, he said.

    Contact David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or ddanelski@pe.com

    DANGER ZONE

    Bugs and birds that fly into the heat zone around three 460-foot thermal towers at the Ivanpah solar plant have been found dead, some with burned feathers. Among the species found:

    Yellow-rumped warbler

    Peregrine falcon

    House finch

    Greater roadrunner

    Cinnamon teal

    Monarch butterfly

    Townsends warbler

  • 04/09/2014:  Sea Otters Can Get the Flu, Too: Human H1N1 Pandemic Virus Infected Washington State Sea Otters, Science Daily
    (Link to the original article)


    Northern sea otters living off the coast of Washington state were infected with the same H1N1 flu virus that caused the world-wide pandemic in 2009, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

    During an August 2011 health monitoring project, USGS and CDC scientists found evidence that the Washington sea otters were infected with the pandemic 2009 H1N1 virus, although the exact date and source of exposure could not be determined. The findings suggest that human flu can infect sea otters.

    "Our study shows that sea otters may be a newly identified animal host of influenza viruses," said Hon Ip, a USGS scientist and co-author of the study.

    The researchers discovered antibodies for the 2009 H1N1 flu virus in blood samples from 70 percent of the sea otters studied. None of the otters were visibly sick, but the presence of antibodies means that the otters were previously exposed to influenza. Further tests concluded that the antibodies were specific to the pandemic 2009 H1N1 flu virus, and not from exposure to other human or avian H1N1 viruses.

    "We are unsure how these animals became infected," said Zhunan Li, CDC scientist and lead author on the paper. "This population of sea otters lives in a relatively remote environment and rarely comes into contact with humans."

    An unrelated 2010 study showed that northern elephant seals sampled off the central California coast had also been infected with the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus. This elephant seal exposure is the only other known pandemic H1N1 influenza infection in marine mammals, and similar to sea otters, it is unclear how the seals were exposed.

    "Our new study identifies sea otters as another marine mammal species that is susceptible to influenza viruses and highlights the complex interspecies transmission of flu viruses in the marine environment," said USGS scientist LeAnn White.

    The 2009 H1N1 virus has spread globally among people since 2009 and was the predominant flu virus in circulation during the 2013-2014 flu season. This study is the first time that evidence of influenza infection has been detected in sea otters, although these viruses have previously been found in many different animals, including ducks, chickens, pigs, whales, horses and the elephant seals.

    The study is published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases and is available online.

    Sea otter sampling was performed by a collaboration of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, USGS Alaska Science Center, USGS Western Ecological Research Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seattle Aquarium.

  • 04/08/2014:  Sea Otters Can Get the Flu, Too,
    (Link to the original article)


  • 03/20/2014:  Iceland Important Location for Study of Bird Flu, Iceland on Review Line
    (Link to the original article)


    The North Atlantic may be an important pathway for the spread of avian influenza between Europe and North America, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report published yesterday.

    USGS and others, including Icelandic scientists, have detected avian flu viruses from North America and Europe in migratory birds in Iceland. The study found that the North Atlantic is as important as the North Pacific in being a melting pot for birds and avian flu.

    Many birds from Europe and North America mix in Icelands wetlands during migration. Infected birds could transmit avian flu viruses to healthy birds from either location and may lead to the evolution of new viruses, the study found.

    While none of the viruses found were harmful to humans, the study findings are considered important for the monitoring of the H5N1 avian influenza that can infect humans. Iceland is an important location for the study of avian flu and is worthy of special attention and monitoring, said Robert Dusek, USGS scientist and lead author of the study.

    The study was the first to document influenza viruses from both Eurasia and North America at the same location and time.

    The USGS partners in the study included the Southwest Iceland Nature Research Institute, the University of Icelands Snfellsnes Research Centre, the University of Minnesota and the J. Craig Venter Institute.

    More information on the study is available on the USGS website.

  • 03/14/2014:  Scientists Complete First Global Inventory of Flu Strains in Birds, News, Avian Influenza, Research
    (Link to the original article)


    A group of international scientists have completed the first global inventory of flu strains in birds by reviewing more than 50 published studies and genetic data, providing new insight into the drivers of viral diversity and the emergence of disease that can ultimately impact human health and livelihoods.

    The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE and performed as part of the USAID PREDICT project, identified more than 116 avian flu strains in wild birds. This is roughly twice the number that were found in domestic birds, and more than ten times the number found in humans. Additionally, an analysis of studies that sampled more than 5,000 birds suggested some regions may have more viral diversity than others.

    Avian flu outbreaks come with no warning. In 2013, an H7N9 avian flu strain caused a deadly outbreak in people in China. This surprised virologists, as the strain had never before caused disease in humans. To date, there have been more than 300 clinical cases of H7N9 with a 33 percent mortality rate. This year, another strain known to infect birds, H10N8, has caused human cases for the first time.

    As was the case in the H7N9 outbreak, most direct bird-to-human spillover events (when a virus jumps from one species to another) of avian flu can be traced back to human contact with domestic poultry. Although avian flu strain diversity often originates in wild birds, it is the mixing of viruses among poultry, pigs, and people that substantially heightens the disease risk in humans.

    In an effort to improve preparedness, scientists are looking to better understand and monitor the diversity of all avian flu viruses not just those known to cause disease. Completing the first global inventory of flu strains in birds is a key step in building that understanding.

    This snapshot of the world of flu virus diversity in birds is the outcome of many years of ecology and evolution, as viewed through the lens of surveillance methods utilized by scientists from around the world, says study lead and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) associate director of wildlife epidemiology, Dr. Sarah Olson.

    Understanding the natural diversity of viruses is critically important to identifying health risks. But authorities face a challenge, both in focusing efforts in the right places, and adequately financing surveillance to describe global flu diversity. To address this, the authors introduced a new method, which borrows on approaches used by ecologists, to estimate the diversity of flu viruses in a particular location. With this approach, health authorities can design surveillance programs to detect a given percentage of flu virus diversity.

    The scientists also looked at patterns of flu diversity in different bird hosts. Mallards carry the highest number of strains at 89 and ruddy turnstones were second with 45. The more a strain was shared across wild bird types, the more likely it was to be found in domestic birds, a risk factor for spillover events. They also noted that some strains could be specific to certain bird types. For example, gulls and shorebirds (Charadriiformes) carried ten strains that have not been identified in any other bird order.

    According to Olson, This inventory isnt about blaming wild birds, but it allows us to map what we know, and informs our understanding of what drives viral diversity and the emergence of rare viral strains that can infect people. Given that flu viruses can jump from domestic poultry to people, ongoing efforts at improving biosecurity at poultry farms and markets remain key to outbreak prevention.

    The co-authors of the study, Sampling strategies and biodiversity of influenza A subtypes in wild birds, include: Sarah Olson and Martin Gilbert of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Jane Parmley and Frederick Leighton of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Center; Catherine Soos of Environment Canada; Neus Latorre-Margalef of the EEMiS, Linnaeus University; Jeffrey Hall of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center; Philip Hansbro of the University of Newcastle; Vincent Munster of the National Institutes of Health; and Damien Joly of Metabiota.

    Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

  • 02/26/2014:  1 in 4 deer in Iowa, western Dane counties has chronic wasting disease, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
    (Link to the original article)


    Chronic wasting disease continues to spread in western Dane and Iowa counties, where about 1 in 4 male adult deer is believed to have the fatal deer malady.

    The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported on Tuesday a prevalence rate of nearly 25% in adult male deer based on 2013 test results in a management zone where the disease was first detected more than a decade ago.

    That's more than double the figure of 2002, when 8% to 10% of adult males had the disease, according to the agency.

    By contrast, the prevalence of the disease is much lower in northern Illinois, where targeted sharpshooting has been used by Illinois wildlife officials since 2002. The prevalence rate is under 1% in Illinois' 12-county CWD area.

    A year ago, the DNR reported a prevalence rate in the zone west of Madison was more than 20% in adult males. The agency cautioned against making year-to-year comparisons because sampling isn't uniform between years.

    But the long-term trend is clear: The rate of infection is rising, the prevalence is higher among male deer than female deer and it's higher among adults than yearlings, according to conservation officials.

    Tamara Ryan, chief of wildlife health at the DNR, said it's difficult to say what will happen in the coming years. But she noted the region has more deer than its carrying capacity and the disease spreads via contact between deer.

    Chronic wasting disease is a nervous system disorder in deer, elk and moose and belongs to a family of prion diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. It's believed to spread by contact between animals the saliva, urine and feces of infected deer and indirectly from a disease-contaminated environment, such as soil.

    In addition to the situation with adult males, the DNR reported a prevalence rate of about 10% among adult females, compared with 3% to 4% in 2002.

    Among male yearlings, the rate is about 7%, compared with about 2% in 2002.

    Among female yearlings, the rate is about 6%, compared with about 2% in 2002.

    "Those numbers are exactly what we have seen in the past," said Bryan Richards, CWD project leader for the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

    In one area, in Wyoming Valley, south of Spring Green, the infection rate among male adults was more than 30% in 2012 a year earlier than the latest results.

    David Clausen of Amery, a veterinarian who served on the Natural Resources Board until last year, is a proponent of the DNR taking a more aggressive role in trying to control CWD.

    Clausen expects the prevalence of the disease to increase and spread if "people choose to ignore reality," he said, and continue to balk at measures to reduce deer numbers to help control the disease.

    The disease has been found in 18 counties of Wisconsin but is concentrated in two zones the area west of Madison and another in Rock and Walworth counties and northern Illinois.

    Chronic wasting disease was detected for the first time in 2002 in Wisconsin; it was first found in captive mule deer in Wyoming in the 1960s.

    The discovery, a watershed moment in Wisconsin conservation, prompted the DNR to take aggressive action by using sharpshooters and longer hunting seasons.

    In 2007, the DNR defended the use of sharpshooters as an "efficient and effective tool in reducing deer numbers and removing diseased deer," because the shooters were killing more antlerless deer than hunters were.

    Between 2002 and 2011, the DNR spent more than $45 million to manage the disease, with much of the money coming from the federal government.

    But the sharpshooting and longer seasons met with strong public objections and reluctance of hunters to kill more deer. Meanwhile, the disease was popping up in new areas.

    That prompted the DNR and the Legislature to curtail some control tactics. Sharpshooting was eliminated. So was an early season on antlerless deer. The Legislature eliminated a program known as "Earn a Buck," which required hunters to kill an antlerless deer before earning the right to shoot a buck.

    Ryan called the DNR's role a "balancing act," between biological considerations and social and political pressures.

    "Right now, while there are people concerned (about the spread of CWD), there isn't support for the action to really make a difference," she said.

    Starting this year, new rules approved by the Wisconsin Legislature that grew out of a report from a governor-appointed deer trustee include the creation of county deer committees. The deer panels give the DNR flexibility to work locally on deer management and disease surveillance.

    "The future of how the DNR is going to contend with CWD will come out of these committees," Ryan said.

  • 02/11/2014:  Fungus killing trumpeter swans in Whatcom County, NorthJersey.com
    (Link to the original article)


    BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) A fungal infection from moldy grain has been killing dozens of trumpeter swans wintering on Wiser Lake in Whatcom County.

    Wildlife biologist Martha Jordan of Washington Swan Stewards tells The Bellingham Herald (http://bit.ly/1b9Cwl7 ) that 149 of the big white birds were found dead in the county as of Jan. 27. That compares with fewer than 100 deaths in northwest Washington in the same period last year.

    A biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Department, Chris Danilson, says some of the birds have been analyzed at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. It found some of the swans had been killed by the fungal disease, aspergillosis, contracted from eating moldy grain. The center found a decline in the number of swans dying from eating leftover lead shotgun pellets.

    ___

    Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com

    - See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/national/244311841_Fungus_killing_trumpeter_swans_in_Whatcom_County.html#sthash.GYw6Gfb6.dpuf

  • 02/05/2014:  What's killing all the starfish on the West Coast?, Contra Costa Times California
    (Link to the original article)


    Starfish have been mysteriously dying by the millions in recent months along the West Coast, worrying biologists who say the sea creatures are key to the marine ecosystem.

    Scientists first started noticing the mass deaths in June 2013. Different types of starfish, also known as sea stars, were affected, from wild ones along the coast to those in captivity, according to Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

    The two species affected most are Pisaster ochraceus (purple sea star or ochre starfish) and Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower sea star), he wrote in a statement in December.

    The sunflower sea star is considered among the largest starfish and can span more than a meter in diameter.

    The most commonly observed symptoms are white lesions on the arms of the sea star. The lesions spread rapidly, resulting in the loss of the arm. Within days, the infection consumes the creature's entire body, and it dies.

    Entire populations have been wiped out in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state, in the Salish Sea off Canada's British Columbia as well as along the coast of California. The mortality rate is estimated at 95 percent.

    Scientists who have spent decades studying the local ecosystem have yet to identify the cause.

    What we currently think is likely happening is that there is a pathogen, like a parasite or a virus or a bacteria, that is infecting the sea stars and that compromises in some way their immune system, Pete Raimondi, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told AFP.

    Then, the creatures become more susceptible to bacteria which is causing a secondary infection that causes most of the damages that you see.

    A barometer of sea health

    The 2013 phenomenon has not been observed solely along the West Coast; a smaller outbreak also killed East Coast sea stars last year.

    Previous cases were believed to be associated with warmer waters sea stars have sensitive skin and prefer cooler water but this was not the case in 2013.

    And when the die-offs happened previously, the geographic span of the infections was much smaller, and far fewer sea stars were affected.

    In 1983, an epidemic nearly wiped out the Pisaster ochraceus from tidal pools along the southern coast of California.

    Another, smaller die-off in 1997 may have been caused by warmer waters in an El Nino year, scientists said.

    Sea stars are important because they play a key role in this ecosystem on the West Coast, Raimondi said.

    Sea stars eat mussels, barnacles, snails, mollusks and other smaller sea life, so their health is considered a measure of marine life on the whole in a given area.

    When sea stars decline in number, the mussel population has the potential to dramatically increase, which could significantly alter the rocky intertidal zone, according to Sleeman.

    While sea stars make up an important component of the base of the ocean food chain and are considered a top predator, they are in turn eaten by other starfish, shorebirds, gulls, and sometimes sea otters.

    In an effort to find out what is causing the mass deaths, scientists are collecting reports from the public, taking specimens to the lab for analysis and doing genetic sequencing to find out whether a toxin or an infection may be to blame.

  • 01/08/2014:  Now 40 eagles dead, but West Nile outbreak may be in decline, The Sale Lake Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    The number of known dead bald eagles in northern Utah is now at 40 and five remain in wildlife rehabilitation centers with what biologists have identified as West Nile virus.

    Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease specialist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), said reports of sick eagles have diminished and that could be a good thing.

    "I think we may be done seeing sick birds," she said. "It seems that everything coming in now is dead so I believe that we are not actively transmitting any more."

    Utah officials with the agencies overseeing wildlife, health and agriculture announced last week that the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., had confirmed West Nile virus as the cause of the eagle deaths.

    The virus had been suspected when sick and dead eagles started to show up in northern Utah in early December. But wildlife officials were reluctant to identify the mosquito-borne virus as the culprit because it has never been reported so late in the year.

    It is believed that the afflicted bald eagles had consumed dead eared grebes on the Great Salt Lake. It is not known whether the grebes died from West Nile virus or served as a carrier for the disease.

    Health officials say people and domestic livestock should not be at risk from this West Nile virus outbreak because the disease is almost always transmitted by a mosquito bite.

    DaLyn Erickson with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden said all four bald eagles currently at her facility continue to show signs of improvement.

    A juvenile female taken to the center on Dec. 28, the 10th to arrive at the Ogden center, died late last week.

    "She was just too far gone," Erickson said. "We are working to move three of the eagles into a larger area, but we are being careful to quarantine them and prevent it from spreading to other birds here."

    The fourth live eagle is regaining his vision, but it is a slow process.

    Erickson said only time will tell if the eagles can be released back into the wild.

    "The eagles that died showed signs of heart damage," she said. "We need to watch and see how they do and see if they have the stamina and can handle physical exertion before we make that decision."

  • 01/08/2014:  West Nile virus blamed for rash of bald eagle deaths in Utah, Los Angeles Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Utah wildlife experts believe they have solved the mystery of what killed at least 29 bald eagles over the last month: West Nile virus.

    The majestic birds, the national symbol of the United States, apparently became infected after eating smaller birds with the disease, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

    In December, hunters and farmers across five counties in northern and central Utah began finding the normally skittish raptors lying, listless, on the ground. Many suffered from seizures, head tremors and paralysis in the legs, feet and wings.

    Several ailing birds were taken to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, where most died within 48 hours. In a release, wildlife officials said a recent die-off of eared grebes that stop at Utahs Great Salt Lake was the most probable culprit.

    Each year, 2 million grebes visit the region. Most years, a small percentage that visit the Great Salt Lake die from avian cholera, Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said in a news release.

    "Every time grebes die, we send some of the dead birds to a laboratory for testing. Usually, avian cholera jumps out as the cause of death. This year, though, the initial laboratory results were not as conclusive. That led us to believe that something else might have killed the grebes this year," McFarlane said.

    Between 750 and 1,200 bald eagles visit Utah in the winter, when the predators eat mostly dead animals. Since all of the eagles that have died have been within flying distance of the lake, McFarlane said she believed the eagles might have contracted West Nile virus after eating grebes in the area.

    West Nile virus usually affects birds, including eagles, during warmer months, when mosquitoes that carry the disease are active. Officials say the sick birds do not pose a risk to either humans or livestock.

    Testing at the Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Logan and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., ruled out such possible causes as toxic chemicals, poisons, bacterial infections and several other viruses.

    West Nile virus can live for a few days in the carcass of a bird, so theres still a chance that additional eagles will get sick and die, even after the grebes leave. But the risk to eagles should decrease quickly.

    "Even though its difficult to watch eagles die," McFarlane said, "the deaths that have and still might occur wont affect the overall health of the bald eagle population that winters in Utah or the overall population in the United States."

    Utah rehabilitation centers are still treating five sick eagles, which appear to be responding well to treatment, the news release said.

  • 01/04/2014:  Endangered Whooping Cranes Make It To Florida Following Ultralights, The Chattanoogan
    (Link to the original article)


    Eight young whooping cranes that began their aircraft-led migration on Oct. 2, from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County, Wisconsin, Tuesday made it to Leon County, Fl., their last layover before reaching their new winter home at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

    Terry Peacock, refuge manager for St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, says it is 70-80 percent likely that there will be a flyover at the City of St. Marks field Wednesday.

    We hope to see all our "craniacs" at the flyover tomorrow, said Ms. Peacock. "We would like our biggest crowd ever in the five years of crane arrivals."

    Weather depending, she expects the birds and ultralights should be over the city of St. Marks field by the water treatment plant by 8:15-8:30 a.m.

    We are hoping for good weather on New Years Day to complete this, our 13th migration, said Operation Migration spokesperson Liz Condie. I cant think of a better way to ring in the New Year.

    The field is located at the terminus of Florida State Highway 363, next to the St. Marks River.

    These birds are in the mode of flying now, said Ms. Condie. They took off like a shot this morning as soon as the ultralights revved up.

    They now have flown a total of about 1,070 miles, flying about 30 miles Tuesday morning.

    The public should check out the Operation Migration website for the final confirmation at www.operationmigration.org.

    The public is also invited to follow the aircraft-guided Whooping cranes on Operation Migrations live CraneCam, which broadcasts daily during flights and while the cranes are at each stopover location along the route to Florida. Visit: http://www.ustream.tv/migratingcranes to watch the video stream or http://operationmigration.org/InTheField for daily website postings.

    This is the 13th group of birds to take part in a project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperilled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range.

    WCEP partner Operation Migration is using two ultralight aircraft to lead the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds wintering habitat at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast.

    Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, about 445 of those in the wild. Aside from the WCEP birds, the only other migratory population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock of approximately 20 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and an additional 33 non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana.

    WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not attempt to feed them, or approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle. Do not approach in a vehicle any closer than 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, please do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph whooping cranes.

    Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

    Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the projects budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

    To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm.

  • 01/04/2014:  DWR learns what killed bald eagles, Wildlife News
    (Link to the original article)


    Salt Lake City Laboratory results have confirmed what officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have been suspecting: West Nile virus killed the bald eagles that have died in Utah over the past few weeks.

    Testing at the Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, has definitively ruled out many other possible causes of death, including toxic chemicals or poisons, lead poisoning, bacterial infections and several other viruses, including avian influenza and avian vacuolar myelinopathy.

    How did the eagles get West Nile virus?

    Officials aren't certain how the eagles got West Nile virus, as the disease typically affects birds (including eagles) during warmer months, when mosquitoes that carry the disease are active.

    They think the birds might have contracted the virus after eating infected eared grebes that died recently on Great Salt Lake.

    Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), says more than 2 million eared grebes stop at Great Salt Lake during their winter migration. Almost every year, about one percent of the population that visits the lake dies from a bacterial disease called avian cholera.

    "Every time grebes die," she says, "we send some of the dead birds to a laboratory for testing. Usually, avian cholera jumps out as the cause of death. This year, though, the initial laboratory results were not as conclusive. That led us to believe that something else might have killed the grebes this year."

    Additional testing on the eared grebes, however, have led to findings that are consistent with what's being found in the bald eagles.

    In the winter, bald eagles obtain most of their food by eating dead animals. Since all of the eagles that have died have been within flying distance of the lake, McFarlane thinks the eagles might have contracted West Nile virus after eating grebes that died at the lake from the disease.

    No human health concerns

    JoDee Baker, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, says people do not need to be concerned; dead grebes and dead eagles do not pose a risk to people.

    "People become infected with West Nile virus after being bitten by a mosquito that carries the virus," Baker says. "Although there are other very rare ways you can get the virus, such as receiving contaminated blood or organs from an infected person, mosquitoes are, by far, the most common method of transmission. Since the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus aren't active in the winter, there's no risk to the public's health."

    While the eagles don't pose a risk to public health, both Baker and McFarlane encourage you to not touch or handle sick or dead birds, including eagles. Instead, call the nearest DWR office. A wildlife officer or a biologist will be dispatched to get the bird.

    Dr. Bruce King, state veterinarian with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, says domestic livestock are safe too. "Because mosquitoes aren't active in the winter," he says, "we see no eminent danger to domestic livestock in Utah, including backyard chickens, horses, or other small or large farm operations."

    Grebes will be gone soon

    McFarlane says the migration of eared grebes through Utah is almost over for the winter. "By the second week of January," she says, "almost all of the grebes will be gone."

    West Nile virus can live for a few days in the carcass of a bird that has just died, however, so there's still a chance that additional eagles will get sick and die, even after the grebes leave. But the risk to eagles should decrease quickly.

    McFarlane says between 750 and 1,200 bald eagles visit Utah in the winter. "Even though it's difficult to watch eagles die," she says, "the deaths that have and still might occur won't affect the overall health of the bald eagle population that winters in Utah or the overall population in the United States."

    On the morning of Dec. 31, the number of eagles that had died in Utah stood at 27 birds. Twenty-one of those birds were found dead in the wild. Six additional birds died while being treated at rehabilitation centers.

    On the morning of Dec. 31, rehabilitation centers were treating five sick eagles. The sick eagles appear to be responding well to the treatments.

  • 01/02/2014:  Bald eagle deaths in Utah blamed on West Nile virus, Los Angeles Daily News
    (Link to the original article)


    They may be the symbol of our nation, but bald eagles are scavengers.

    It is that characteristic specifically of finding carrion on the water that has led to the death of at least 21 bald eagles and impacted many more across northern Utah.

    State wildlife officials announced Tuesday morning that the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. confirmed West Nile virus is the cause of the eagle deaths and that six more are currently being treated in wildlife rehabilitation centers.

    West Nile virus was suspected when sick and dead eagles started to show up in early December, but wildlife officials were reluctant to identify the mosquito-born virus as the culprit because it has never been reported in December.

    "This is a major development. This is not typically a time we would expect to see West Nile virus. We monitor West Nile every year, but during mosquito season. This is an unusual event," said Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease specialist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "It is concerning and something we will have to watch for going into the future."

    As the number of eagle deaths grew, the investigation turned to the ice-free waters of the Great Salt Lake. Eared grebes, a species of migratory waterfowl found in western North America, gather on the lake in massive numbers, approximately 2 million, each fall and linger until their food sources diminish before continuing south.

    It is common for large numbers of the grebes to die each fall, usually from avian cholera. McFarlane said it appears that up to 20,000 grebes died this year and the bald eagles quickly honed in on the easy meal.

    "We became more suspicious when the eagles were showing up pretty much centered around the Great Salt Lake," McFarlane said. "We are not sure West Nile is killing the grebes, but they are definitely a carrier of it."

    If it ends up that the eared grebes died from West Nile virus it would mark a first time deaths have recorded in that species. The National Wildlife Health Center is performing tests on the grebes.

    "People become infected with West Nile virus after being bitten by a mosquito that carries the virus," said JoDee Baker, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health in a release. "Although there are other very rare ways you can get the virus, such as receiving contaminated blood or organs from an infected person, mosquitoes are, by far, the most common method of transmission. Since the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus aren't active in the winter, there's no risk to the public's health."

    McFarlane said an estimated 10,000 grebes remain on the Great Salt Lake, but are likely close to flying south.

    "As long as we have live grebes that are sick out there and infected dead birds that eagles will eat we may continue to lose bald eagles," she said.

    Efforts to clear the Great Salt Lake of the dead grebes would be expensive and a tremendous undertaking. Wildlife biologists believe the West Nile virus does not remain in the carcasses of dead animals very long.

    "It doesn't do well in the environment without a host," McFarlane said.

    DaLyn Erickson with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden has treated nine of the bald eagles. Five of them died or had to be euthanized. All were suffering from head tremors, lower body paralysis and an inability to digest food.

    Erickson started treating four eagles in her care with anti-inflammatories last week and it appears to be working.

    While she is glad to finally have a name for what is impacting the eagles, Erickson is not happy with the prognosis.

    "I wish there was a cure for West Nile, but there is not," she said. "We are doing all we can to help them, but it is basically up to the bird's immune system if they can fight it off. All we can do is help them with that fight."

    Three of the birds being treated at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah are now able to stand and are eating. A juvenile male that arrived at the center in a more compromised state is not faring as well, but has shown signs of improvement.

    "West Nile does damage to the brain, the heart and other organs," Erickson said. "We need to see if that damage is permanent or if it will heal in each individual case."

  • 12/30/2013:  Bald eagles are dying in Utah, and nobodys quite sure why, The Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    A mystery disease appears to be killing off bald eagles in Utah, but the states wildlife experts arent quite sure why.

    Sixteen birds have been either found dead or have died in rehabilitation from Dec. 1 through Friday morning, says Leslie McFarlane, the wildlife disease program coordinator for the states Division of Wildlife Resources. The symptoms are similar, she says: paralysis of the wings, weakness in the legs and feet making it difficult for the birds to stand, body tremors, and, ultimately, seizures.

    This is really concerning to us, says McFarlane. She has been program coordinator for 10 years and describes the recent deaths as very unusual.

    The annual number of bald eagle deaths in Utah can range from 4 to 40, McFarlane says. But those deaths are almost always associated with injuries, such as a broken neck or wing from flying into a vehicle, fence or power line. The symptoms noted in the recent spate of deathsand the broad geographical area in which they have cropped upare what has officials concerned.

    State officials have ruled out lead poisoning. And while the symptoms are similar to those caused by the West Nile Virus, McFarlane said, there are few mosquitoes to transmit the virus in Utah at this time of year.

    Eagles in the state are typically not year-round residents. An estimated 750 to 1,200 can be found in Utah during the winter months, having come down from Alaska and Canada.

    We dont have a whole lot of nesting bald eagles here, McFarlane says.

    Almost all of the carcasses have been sent for further study to the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. McFarlane said that she is hoping the center will respond this week with some clues as to whats afflicting the population.

  • 12/30/2013:  Like Frogs and Bats, Snakes Now Face Deadly New Epidemic, takepart
    (Link to the original article)


    Somewhere in the back of our minds, we all worry about the sort of nightmare pandemic envisioned in films like Contagion or The Hot Zone, with some horrific new disease sweeping across the continents and mowing down human victims like so much hay. But wildlife biologists worry more than most, because theyve already seen emerging diseases devastate two major animal groups.

    Now it seems to be happening yet again, while the two other wildlife pandemics are still raging unresolved: Over the past two decades, the chytrid fungus has contributed to the extinction of perhaps 100 amphibian speciesincluding some of the most colorful, charismatic frogs in the worldwith many more extinctions now being predicted. White nose syndrome, another fungal disease, first discovered in 2006, has already killed off 6 to 7 million North American bats and now threatens some species with extinction. No reliable remedy is known for either disease.

    The victims of what seems to be a new epidemic are snakes, and they may prove even harder to save, because they are widely unpopular and because populations in many areas tend to be small and scattered. Wildlife biologists first noticed the new pathogen in 2006, among New Hampshires only surviving population of the timber rattlesnake.

    The first victim turned up dead in early June, from a severe fungal infection in the mouth. Other victims displayed skin lesions around the head and, in one case, a severely swollen eye. Within a year, half the population was dead.

    Similar cases have appeared since then in snakes of various species in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. But because they live in the dirt, snakes carry a variety of fungi, and separating the pathogen out from among the background fungi has proved challenging, according to David Blehert, head of diagnostic microbiology at the U.S. National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisc. Then, early this year, new molecular techniques made it possible to identify the likely culprit for whats being called Snake Fungal Disease. Researchers then went back and determined that the newly identified pathogen was present in virtually every known case of the disease to date.

    So far the disease has turned up in nine states: Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. It has caused sickness and death in seven species: Northern water snake, eastern racer, rat snake, timber rattlesnake, massasauga, pygmy rattlesnake, and milk snake.

    Federal and state officials are beginning work on a new grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey snake populations for presence of Snake Fungal Disease. The aim is to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in the early 1990s with chytrid fungus in amphibians. Because of inadequate monitoring, researchers failed to recognize that pathogen until it had spread widely and caused some species to become extinct.

    No one knows yet where the new pathogen came from. Its possible it was introduced from the pet trade or another source. Blehert thinks its more likely to be a fungus that was already present in the population, from which a more virulent strain has emerged, or a strain that does more damage because of changing weather conditions. The outbreak in New Hampshire occurred during the states wettest weather in 114 years.

    The impact on snakes could be severe, Blehert warns, because many of these threatened snake populations are already heavily fragmented and isolated from one another. Amphibians may be somewhat more resilient in the face of chytrid fungus because they live in larger populations and lay thousands of eggs. But snakes tend to have much more limited reproductive potential. Timber rattlesnakes, for instance, give birth to live young, not eggs, and the offspring dont reach sexual maturity for nine years. If fungal deaths pile up during those nine years, a population, or a species, could easily crash.

    For now, the New Hampshire rattlesnake population seems to be hanging on. But researchers there warn that the combination of habitat fragmentation, loss of genetic diversity, climate change, and now an emerging disease could send some species spiraling into an extinction vortex.

  • 12/20/2013:  Fifth Utah eagle dies, another shows signs of mystery malady, The Salt Lake Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    A fifth bald eagle suffering from a mysterious malady has been euthanized, a sixth is receiving treatment and the outbreak now includes seven more eagles found dead in the wild.

    Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) officials confirm that 12 bald eagles have died in northern Utah this month from a still unknown cause.

    The fifth bald eagle to receive treatment was delivered to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah on Saturday from West Weber. It was euthanized because its health declined very quickly, said DaLyn Erickson with the center.

    The surviving eagle, an immature female spotted by a hiker near Centerville, arrived at the Ogden center Wednesday. Likely hatched this spring, the juvenile displays the same head tremors and lower extremity paralysis as the previous eagles, Erickson said.

    As the mystery persists. Erickson is afraid what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Six distressed eagles have been reported by members of the public and delivered by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials to the Ogden center or the Great Basin Wildlife Rescue in Mapleton.

    Two of those eagles came from West Weber. The others have come from Corrine, Grantsville and Lehi. One of the dead birds was found on the Provo River Trail in Utah County.

    Preliminary results from the first birds tests for illnesses including West Nile virus, lead poisoning and avian cholera are expected to arrive late this week or early next week from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    Results from more thorough testing to hone in on the exact cause of the deaths will likely not be available until after Christmas.

    It is likely that the dying eagles recently migrated to Utah from other states.

    Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease specialist with the DWR, has contacted surrounding states and none reported unusual bald eagle deaths.

    McFarlane worries that the increasing arrivals of migrating eagles could compound the number of deaths if it turns out that the cause is an illness that can be passed from bird to bird.

    More eagles are arriving every day. Im absolutely concerned, she said.

    Eagles gather in Utah each winter and tend to stay where food sources are easily available. Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management area in the Great Salt Lake marshes is a good example.

    McFarlane said annual winter counts of bald eagles in Utah, scheduled to start in coming weeks, range from 750 to more than 1,200.

    The DWR is exploring whether the eagle deaths are linked to the recent deaths of approximately 1,000 eared grebes on the Great Salt Lake and the discovery of 150 dead northern shovelers on Interstate 80 just south of the Great Salt Lake.

    McFarlane isnt sure there will be a connection. We just need to look at everything and hope we can come up with an answer, she said.

    Wildlife officials ask people who spot distressed or dead eagles or other wildlife to contact local DWR offices (Ogden, Vernal, Springville, Cedar City and Price) with the location of the animal. The Help Stop Poaching Hotline 1-800-662-3337 is another option on weekends and holidays and after hours.

  • 12/18/2013:  Logan lab tries to crack mystery of eagle deaths, The Herald Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    A Logan veterinary lab recently played a role in investigating the mysterious deaths of four bald eagles, and now three of them are being sent to a national lab in hopes of finding the root of the problem.

    The Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory a cooperative lab with Utah State University and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food conducted a necropsy on one of the eagles. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources sent the other three birds to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. Results may take two to three weeks.

    Thomas Baldwin, director and pathologist for the Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, referred The Herald Journal to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for comment.

    According to Leslie McFarlane, Wildlife Disease Program coordinator at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the four eagles were found earlier this month in wide ranging locations across northern Utah Corinne, Grantsville, Lehi and Weber County. The birds were admitted to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden and the Great Basin Wildlife Rescue in Mapleton exhibiting signs of paralysis, weakness in legs and seizures. None with these kinds of symptoms have been found in Cache Valley, McFarlane said.

    Veterinarians treated the four eagles for lead poisoning, but they didnt respond and died.

    Now another eagle has been found acting strangely near the Weber River in West Weber.

    Were taking it really seriously and trying to figure out what the issue is, McFarlane said in an interview with The Herald Journal on Monday. We just want them (the lab) to tell us why they died. Its not unusual to have animals die, but it is unusual to have animals die in different parts of the state that show the same symptoms in a short period of time, and thats why were looking more closely at it.

    It remains to be seen what kind of implications this could have for the broader bald eagle population in Utah.

    Were concerned about it; thats why were taking it so seriously and trying to figure out why these birds died, she said. If they are related, how are they related, and is there anything we can do about it?

    DaLyn Erickson executive director and wildlife specialist with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, was one of the first to inspect the raptors when they were turned in. She said the center does not suspect illegal activities as the reason for the death of the eagles. Traditionally, the center sees three to four dead eagles each year.

    We really dont know what to think, Erickson said. We dont get this many eagles in this period with symptoms, so to have (this many) come in two weeks time is pretty unusual.

  • 12/18/2013:  Two gulls found dead, covered in oil off northern coast of St. Lawrence Island, Anchorage Daily News
    (Link to the original article)


    Two oil-covered gulls were found dead Tuesday off the northern coast of St. Lawrence Island, according to a situation report from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

    Subsistence hunters found the recently deceased glaucous gulls on an offshore hunt about 12 miles east of the island village of Gambell, according to the report.

    Glaucous gulls can be found in open waters and are eaten by island residents.

    One of the gulls was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., to determine a cause of death, according to the report.

    On Thursday, the United States Coast Guard sent a C-130 out of Kodiak to look for an oil slick or more oil-covered wildlife in the area, but none was found.

  • 12/18/2013:  Another Utah bald eagle may have mysterious deadly malady, The Salt Lake Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    Mitch Lane was expecting a dead bald eagle when he responded to a report from a waterfowl hunter. His first glance at the raptor from across the river seemed to confirm the report.

    But once the conservation officer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reached the eagle he found the bird was alive. How long it remains alive is another matter.

    Lane picked up the live bald eagle Saturday in an area along the Weber River in West Weber, close to where another eagle was collected on Dec. 1. The eagle retrieved earlier and at least three others from wide-ranging locations eventually died from a yet unknown cause.

    There were a lot of eagles in the area this time of year. This one was on the ground and had his wings spread out; he looked dead from a distance, Lane said. When I got closer it was obvious it was still alive.

    The eagle could stretch out its wings but couldnt fly, and Lane recognized that it did not have full use of its legs or talons.

    Those are symptoms the four bald eagles displayed before dying at either the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden or the Great Basin Wildlife Rescue in Mapleton. The other eagles were found in Corinne, Grantsville and Lehi.

    This one is stable and in fair condition, DaLyn Erickson of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center said Monday. He is in better condition than the other eagles we received.

    The latest eagle is showing signs of the head tremors the others displayed, but it is very slight, Erickson said.

    The eagle has leg paralysis and difficulty processing food, symptoms the other birds showed. The eagle is being fed a nutrient-rich liquid diet.

    Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease specialist with the DWR, said discovering another eagle is a concern, but no new clues have emerged in the mystery.

    It is really hard to make any conclusions without the results of necropsies and without putting samples under the scope to see what is going on, she said. Until we can get those results it really just remains speculation.

    Possible culprits include West Nile virus or avian vacuolar myelinopathy, a neurological disease found in 1994 in the southern United States that impacts bald eagles and American coots.

    The dead eagles are being sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for testing. Results are likely at least two weeks away.

    Wildlife officials ask people who spot distressed eagles or other wildlife to contact local DWR offices (Ogden, Vernal, Springville, Cedar City and Price) with the location of the animal. The Help Stop Poaching Hotline 1-800-662-3337 is another option on weekends and holidays and after hours.

  • 12/18/2013:  States test a new prairie dog plague vaccine, High Country News
    (Link to the original article)


    Dressed in long pants, long-sleeve shirts and closed-toed shoes, a team of researchers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife gathered in a sagebrush-grass meadow near Gunnison, Colo. this summer, each with a GPS in hand. Lining up 10 meters apart along the border of a virtual grid, they walked straight lines over a Gunnisons prairie dog colony and dropped quarter-sized peanut butter cubes behind them. It was one of three Gunnisons colonies where the delectable cubes became just a treat for any animal that found them, but at another three, the cubes contained a vaccine against sylvatic plague, which has ravaged the Wests prairie dog populations.

    This was the first year of a larger three-year study of the real-world effectiveness of the new Sylvatic Plague Vaccine (SPV), now being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and local partners across seven Western states. In the lab setting, the vaccine has effectively protected 90 percent of animals tested, and tests show that it lasts for at least nine months once ingested. Now its time to find out whether SVP works in the wild.

    When plague was first introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s, likely by rats that traveled on ships from Asia, it caused a human outbreak of disease and death in San Francisco. From there, the disease moved east, stopping mysteriously near the 100th meridian. In 2008, it started moving east again, showing up in South Dakota for the first time. Not many people have caught it -- the Centers for Disease Control reports an average of seven cases of human plague each year across the nation. But the disease has become one of the major reasons for the decline of all four of the countrys prairie dog species, including the federally protected Utah prairie dog and the Gunnisons prairie dog, which was a candidate for federal protection until this fall. Prairie dogs have very low immunity to plague, and an outbreak can wipe out a colony. And even when there are no outbreaks happening, plague can exist at low levels in a population, causing a slower die-off.

    Sylvatic plague also hits black-footed ferrets from two angles. Ferrets are susceptible to the plague bacteria too, but more importantly, when plague kills off a prairie dog colony, any ferrets living nearby lose their main food source. Plague has been one of the main obstacles to a successful recovery to the struggling ferrets, which were thought to be extinct twice in the past century. While SVP doesnt work to protect ferrets against plague directly, by treating prairie dogs, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey say the work could help the ferrets reestablish as well.

    For several years, the USGS has been fine-tuning the vaccine in the lab. Since the 1990s, wildlife managers have used an oral vaccine for controlling rabies in carnivores like fox and coyote, and in raccoons, and seen great success. Using that model and a very similar virus, researchers developed the new SVP. To make sure the prairie dogs would actually eat the vaccine pellets, Rockes lab tested several bait flavors like blueberry and sweet potato, and eventually settled on peanut butter. Rodents love it, Rocke says.

    This summer the USGS teamed up with wildlife agencies in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Texas, Utah, and South Dakota for the trials. In each state, scientists dropped vaccine pellets in several prairie dog habitats. For each vaccine-baited site, they also dropped placebos on a similar prairie dog colony to establish a control. In Colorado, state managers tested the vaccine in the Gunnisons prairie dog range and also, north of Fort Collins, on black-tailed prairie dog colonies. All the placebos and the vaccine-laden baits were infused with a common biomarker, rhotamine B, that dyes the animals hair to glow an orangeish-red under an infrared microscope. This biomarker allows the researchers to study how many animals are actually eating the baits. Dr. Michael Miller, senior wildlife veterinarian with CPW, says the results they saw in a preliminary study last year were even better than theyd hoped. More than 90 percent of animals they sampled had the biomarker, he says. This suggests that if we can get this stuff out in quantity, we can reach a high percentage of prairie dogs.

    And having an effective tool to treat entire colonies of prairie dogs is exactly what scientists say is necessary to keeping those communities and their surrounding ecosystems healthy. Burrowing owls use the dogs burrows for shelter, and raptors and swift foxes hunt the dogs for food. The endangered black-footed ferret relies almost exclusively on the prairie dog for food and, like the burrowing owl, use the dogs tunnels for their own homes.

    Dan Tripp, wildlife disease researcher for CPW, says that in addition to caring about plague control for ecosystem health, having tools to prevent plague outbreaks will be good for the states agriculture and development sectors too. By establishing healthier, more stable prairie dog colonies in conservation areas, states could avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for the three prairie dog species not on the list; which would help out ranchers, since listings can tie ranchers' hands with land use restrictions. Our goal isnt necessarily to make more prairie dogs, but to stabilize populations, he says.

    State and federal agencies have tried other methods to control plague outbreaks in the past, but none have been all that successful. To protect black-footed ferrets, biologists have vaccinated them before releasing them into the wild. This approach seems to be effective in protecting individuals from disease, but any offspring they produce are susceptible, and if the prairie dog colonies they rely on get infected, the ferrets will be without food. Other efforts have involved using an insecticide dust on colonies showing outbreaks. The dust kills fleas that transmit the disease, but it can also harm non-target insects in the area.

    Controlling diseases in humans and domestic animals is hard enough, says Miller: All those challenges are still there for wildlife, and then they are multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Often wild populations are harder to reach because of geography and our limited knowledge of population size and location. In many diseases, we dont even have the tools to treat the pathogen, he says. If the studies in the coming years show that this vaccine is successful in protecting prairie dogs from plague, it could be a game changer for the dogs conservation as well as for ferret reintroduction.

    Its too early to be truly optimistic; at least two more years of field studies are needed for conclusive data about how effective the vaccine is. But theres room for hope. There are very few cases in the world where people trying to control disease in wildlife have been able to do so, says Miller. The only good example in the U.S., or really in North America right now, is rabies vaccination. This plague vaccine, he says, might be our second.

  • 12/13/2013:  Hundreds of birds fall dead from the sky on Aden Road in Nokesville, Virginia, sott.net (Signs of the Times)
    (Link to the original article)


    Witnesses say hundreds of black birds fell dead from the sky in Nokesville on Thursday afternoon, littering Aden Road with their feathery remains.

    Prince William County police spokesman Jonathan Perok said it happened about 2 p.m., near Aden Grocery.

    Police, animal control and crews from the Virginia Department of Transportation were called to the area, where witnesses said they were shoveling dead birds off the road.

    It was unclear Thursday night what type of birds they were, and what caused them to die.

    Several people reported seeing large numbers of birds gathered on power lines in the area earlier in the day.

    Kevin Rose, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said mass bird die-offs are usually the result of lightning or some sort of trauma. That trauma often includes birds in flight striking power lines.

    "Without a few samples we can't really tell," Rose said in an email. "Unless it starts happening more, we are not concerned."

    Though strange and somewhat eerie, mass bird die offs aren't all that uncommon, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Wildlife Health Center.

    On New Year's Eve in 2011, as many as 5,000 birds die en massed in Arkansas, literally raining from the sky.

    The USGS worked with Arkansas wildlife officials to determine what killed the birds, most of them red-winged blackbirds, and found they died of impact trauma.

    "Field observations ... suggested these birds were roosting for the night, were startled from their perches by loud noises in the area, and because of their very poor night-vision, the birds may have flown into stationary objects such as power lines, telephone poles, houses, mailboxes, tree branches, etc.," the USGS report said.

    Loud fireworks were heard in the area prior to the bird die-off.

    That same year, the National Wildlife Heath Center also worked with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to investigate a similar though smaller scale event involving about 500 red-winged black birds, starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and grackles.

    "The necropsy findings from these birds were also consistent with 'trauma,'" the USGS reported. "Many of these birds appear to have collided with a power or fence line."

  • 12/13/2013:  Eco Talk: New York snakes suffering from what could be national affliction, Auburn Citizen
    (Link to the original article)


    Fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) is one of the most common phobias, and I suspect several readers may have already stopped reading just because of this fear. If you care about our environment, then please read on!

    To clarify, snakes are part of their local ecosystem, and as part of this ecosystem have a specific function or niche role that allows other organisms to function in it. For example, some snakes eat rodents, thus keeping the rodent population in check. If there were no snakes, what would happen to the rodent population? Snakes are also prey for hawks and other large birds, thus they are a food source. Snakes are part of the ecosystem, and part of a food web.

    So why do we have a fear of snakes? Research suggests humans have evolved a tendency to sense snakes. Psychologists found that both adults and children could detect images of snakes among a variety of non-threatening species like frogs, flowers or caterpillars. The researchers think this ability has helped humans survive in the wild and we have not lost that ability. Now snakes have something to fear: snake fungal disease (SFD).

    SFD is an emerging disease in certain populations of wild snakes in the eastern and midwestern United States. Fungal infections were occasionally reported in wild snakes prior to 2006. Recently, the number of wild snakes with fungal dermatitis submitted to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and other diagnostic laboratories has been increasing. Laboratory analyses have determined that the certain fungus is consistently associated with SFD, but often, additional fungi are also isolated from affected snakes. As the name indicates, SFD is only known to afflict snakes.

    While researchers in Vermont were studying timber rattlesnake movement patterns and habitat use, they made the discovery that snakes were covered with lesions around their faces. These lesions were consistent with SFD. Some conservationists are suggesting parallels for SFD to white nose syndrome in bats. This is a scary comparison, as white nose syndrome was first documented in 2007 in New York and has spread widely, killing millions of bats in spite of efforts to control the spread of the disease.

    To date, the health center has confirmed the suspected fungal pathogen in wild snakes from nine states, including New York. SFD is suspected to be more widespread in the United States than is currently documented. Also, multiple species of snakes have been diagnosed with SFD at the health center, including one of my favorites, the milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). SFD has been documented in the past but since 2006 it has been showing up with more frequency. Fortunately, the disease does not seem to be spreading as quickly as white nose syndrome in bats, but it is found in snakes in different parts of the country.

    Infected snakes can die from SFD, the true effects on snake populations is not yet understood, mostly because wild snakes are elusive and there is not enough long-term monitoring data. In New Hampshire, clinical signs consistent with SFD were associated with a 50-percent decline of a threatened population of timber rattlesnakes from 2006 to 2007. In areas where susceptible snake species occur in small, isolated populations, the added threat of SFD may threaten sustainability of these populations. In other regions, SFD has been observed without suspected or, as of yet, documented population declines.

    So why the attention to SFD now? Some feel that the disease has always been present but due to a change in environmental conditions, snakes are now stressed and more susceptible to the disease. Also, researchers in Vermont found that the timber rattlesnake population has a low genetic diversity, which, in combination with SFD, causes great concern. Often, threats to wildlife are not considered as such until it is too late to save the population. An example of this is the impact of white nose syndrome in bats.

    I have seen it suggested that the local ecosystem could do without snakes; it would just look different than it does now. For those who have ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), that might not be a bad thing. However, the alternative might not be as attractive! For snakes experiencing SFD there is good news: Several agencies, including the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, are working together to investigate this potentially emerging disease. They are working to learn more about the impact that SFD is having on snake populations in the eastern and midwestern United States. Lets hope they find ways to control SFD, and be sure to do our part to reduce our impacts on the environment.

  • 12/12/2013:  Botulism Killing Thousands Of Great Lakes Birds, Biologists Getting Closer To Finding Source Of Deadly Bacterium, International Business Times
    (Link to the original article)


    Avian botulism, a fatal disease caused by a toxin that triggers paralysis, is decimating Great Lakes bird populations. Since 2000, dead gulls, loons and other waterfowl have washed up on Great Lakes beaches by the dozens or even hundreds, having drowned after their muscles became stiff. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the birds are becoming infected with botulism.

    "It's kind of like a detective story," David Blehert, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., told the Associated Press. "You find a body somewhere. You want to find out where the incident took place. You look for clues on the body, you find a piece of hair, a piece of fiber, and trace it back to the location and hopefully find your culprit."

    According to the National Wildlife Health Center, Great Lakes birds become infected with botulism when they ingest a toxin produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. The toxin thrives in oxygen-poor environments and can stay dormant for years even in adverse conditions.

    According to the USGS, more than 100,000 Great Lakes birds have died from botulism since 2000. Pinpointing how exactly the birds are coming into contact with the botulism bacterium would allow wildlife experts to eliminate the source or, at least, mitigate it.

    "We haven't got there yet, but we're getting closer," Stephen Riley, a fishery biologist with the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, told the Associated Press.

    According to The Guardian Express, finding the source of botulism in the Great Lakes has proved difficult, partly because the toxin is both man-made and occurs naturally in the environment. Pollution, such as urban runoff, is one source of botulism. Rotting algae is another.

    The leading theory is actually an amalgam of many factors. Scientists believe climate change, invasive species, pollution and natural factors all play a role in botulism bacteria production. One thing is for sure: Its ended up in the Great Lakes food chain, and the birds are bearing the brunt of the environmental damage.

    "It's a complex ecological problem, made more complex by Lake Michigan's changing food webs, the transient nature of toxin production, the fact that many of the affected birds are migratory, and the restrictions on lab testing due to bioterrorism concerns," Brenda Moraska Lafrancois, a regional aquatic ecologist with the National Park Service out of Ashland, Wis., told the Macomb Daily.

    According to the Associated Press, scientists first documented botulism in Great Lake birds in 1963, but the rates of infection have become more frequent in the last 13 years or so.

    Researchers in Florida have begun testing some of the leading theories of where the botulism is coming from. Wildlife experts from Florida Atlantic University are placing stuffed bird carcasses into tanks of water to study water resistance. Other biologists are taking sediment samples at the lakes. Like pieces of a puzzle, the results of these tests will be put together and hopefully give scientists a better idea of how botulism is infecting Great Lakes birds.

  • 12/12/2013:  Scientists test ideas in bird botulism outbreaks, The Wall Street Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. For more than a decade, people walking along Great Lakes beaches have come upon a heartrending sight: dozens, or even hundreds, of dead loons, gulls and other waterfowl victims of food poisoning that paralyzed their muscles and eventually caused them to drown.

    Scientists have long known the primary cause is Type E botulism, which the U.S. Geological Survey says may have killed 100,000 birds in the region since 2000. They have ideas, but no proof, about how the toxin works its way up the food chain.

    Now, using time-tested methods and new technologies, they're coming closer to solving the mystery a crucial step toward determining whether anything can be done to prevent future die-offs.

    Florida Atlantic University recently reported progress in a first-of-its-kind effort to determine the paths of birds that washed onto beaches after dying in open water. Experts with the university's Institute for Ocean Systems Engineering placed stuffed bird carcasses into a laboratory tank and took water resistance measurements. The information will be combined with current and wind data in computer models that attempt to retrace the birds' floating routes.

    Meanwhile, several USGS labs are studying waterfowl distribution and sampling sediments collected from Great Lakes bottomlands, hoping to pinpoint where the toxin is produced. Initial findings suggest loons and other species that plunge into the water to catch fish may be getting infected at deeper levels than previously thought.

    "It's kind of like a detective story," said David Blehert, a microbiologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. "You find a body somewhere. You want to find out where the incident took place. You look for clues on the body, you find a piece of hair, a piece of fiber, and trace it back to the location and hopefully find your culprit."

    Scientists first documented a Great Lakes Type E botulism outbreak in 1963. But they've become more frequent and intense since 2000. Some areas are hot spots, such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, where 600 dead loons washed ashore in 2012. The previous year, about 6,000 bird carcasses were beached along Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.

    Research into where, why and how the die-offs happen has picked up in recent years, supported by more than $2 million in grants through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an Obama administration program designed to deal with some of the region's most pressing ecological threats.

    "We haven't got there yet, but we're getting closer," said Stephen Riley, a fishery biologist with the USGS Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor.

    What scientists consider the most plausible theory involves several environmental villains, including invasive species, climate change and nutrient runoff from farms and sewers.

    Zebra and quagga mussels, ferried to the lakes from Europe in cargo ship ballast tanks in the 1980s, filter the water, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper and stimulate growth of a green algae known as cladophora. Phosphorus runoff from land and warmer water temperatures promote cladophora.

    As thick mats of the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose, which sucks up oxygen an ideal condition for Type E botulism bacteria. Invertebrates such as fly larvae and worms consume the bacteria and in turn are eaten by fish including the round goby, another invader that's popular prey for waterfowl.

    If correct, the theory explains why so many diving birds such as loons, cormorants and merganser ducks are dying of botulism. They go far beneath the surface to gobble fish up to 150 feet deep in the case of loons, said Kevin Kenow, a wildlife biologist with the USGS's Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, Wis. Kenow has fitted them with radio tags to record their movements.

    He also conducts aerial surveys over Lake Michigan to observe bird distribution. During those flights, he saw bird carcasses onshore and got the idea of developing a computer model that could simulate the path they took. Florida Atlantic won the contract to produce the water resistance measurements after doing similar work predicting drift patterns of floating items in oceans.

    The experiments thus far have been conducted in calm water, said Karl von Ellenrieder, an associate professor of ocean and mechanical engineering. The next step: creating waves in the tank and taking new measurements to further refine the data.

    If researchers can nail down where and how the poisonings are happening, they could look for ways to prevent the toxin from being produced or to keep birds away from danger zones. Regulators could step up efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff near botulism hot spots, Blehert said. Attempts might be made to remove rotting cladophora from the water, although Riley admitted that might just spread the poisons more widely.

    "There may be very little we can actually do," he said.

  • 12/06/2013:  Avian Cholera Confirmed on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
    (Link to the original article)


    An unusual number of sick and dead seabirds around St. Lawrence Island is caused by Avian Cholera, a bacterial infection relatively common in waterfowl other places, but previously undetected in Alaska.

    The highly contagious bacterium, Pasteurella multocida, has caused many large die-offs of wild waterfowl worldwide and causes one of the most common diseases of domestic poultry. The closest avian cholera events to Alaska in the past decade involved common eiders and snow geese in Nunavut and Northwest Territories, Canada. It is not related to the infection in people referred to as cholera.

    Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, Wildlife Veterinarian and Wildlife Disease Specialist says that the speedy detection of the disease was a result of two factors. Citizens of Gambell and Savoonga quickly reported seeing sick and dead birds beginning November 20th. The University of Alaskas Marine Advisory Program Biologist Gay Sheffield who is stationed in Nome received a dead thick-billed murre, a Northern fulmar and a crested auklet and sent them to the U.S. Geological Service National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI. The diagnosis was made on December 4.

    Dr. Beckmen said that before the diagnosis was confirmed, local residents had shared concerns about possible causes relating to the environmental, and were worried that humans might be susceptible.

    Pasteurella multocida is commonly found among both domestic and wild birds but different strains or subtypes are found in other animals such as rodents. Strains of the avian cholera bacteria are adapted to infect birds are not generally a high risk for infection for people, Dr. Beckmen said. However, it is always advisable to cook meat thoroughly and never eat sick birds or animals that may have died from a disease. Anyone touching a sick animal should wear gloves and wash hands with soap and water after handling animals or butchering meat.

    Dead birds in these outbreaks still contain high numbers of bacteria and can infect other birds. Outbreaks are usually handled by removing the carcasses as soon as possible, but options for disposal on St. Lawrence Island are limited. The Dept. of Environmental Conservation recommends putting carcasses in vented, empty fuel drums that prevent scavenger spread and allow the carcasses to decompose though next summer.

    Avian cholera outbreaks are typically localized events that end fairly quickly within a few weeks, and Beckmen noted that the number of sick and dead birds reported is decreasing.

    People who wish to report sick or dead wildlife should send an email to dfg.dwc.vet@alaska.gov or phone the nearest ADF&G office.

  • 12/05/2013:  Avian cholera, found in Alaska for first time, caused seabird die-off, Alaska Dispatch
    (Link to the original article)


    Hundreds of seabirds that washed up dead on a Bering Sea island perished from avian cholera, a highly contagious and fast-killing waterfowl infection that had never been detected in Alaska before, according to state wildlife officials.

    Strains of the bacterial disease generally do not pose a health risk for people, said Kimberlee Beckmen, a veterinarian at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But residents of St. Lawrence Island, where the birds were found last month, should take care not to eat sick animals. People also should not handle the birds if they have cuts on their hands.

    It is always advisable to cook meat thoroughly and never eat sick birds or animals that may have died from a disease, she said in a statement. Anyone touching a sick animal should wear gloves and wash hands with soap and water after handling animals or butchering meat.

    Lethal bacteria

    Residents of St. Lawrence Island who collected the carcasses and sent them off for study late last month suspected that recent Bering Sea storms killed the birds. Others feared it was seaborne nuclear radiation from the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.

    Instead, blame Pasteurella multocida, the bacteria responsible for avian cholera. The infection can be quickly lethal, killing birds within 24 hours. It's caused big die-offs of waterfowl around the world, and is one of the most common poultry diseases, a Fish and Game statement said.

    The good news is that outbreaks are typically localized and end within a few weeks.

    Beckmen said the disease was rapidly detected because residents of Gambell and Savoonga, the two Alaska Native villages on the island 700 miles northwest of Anchorage, quickly reported the deaths and sent specimens off for study.

    Biologists Gay Sheffield, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Marine Advisory Program in Nome, received a thick-billed murre, a northern fulmar and a crested auklet. The birds were necropsied at the U.S. Geological Service National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    The results came back Wednesday.

    55-foot whale helps boost food supply

    Villagers on St. Lawrence, already suffering from a diminished walrus supply that led to a disaster declaration by Gov. Sean Parnell, also hunt waterfowl for food. To prevent avian cholera from spreading -- dead birds are still very contagious -- state health regulators have asked local residents to dispose of the birds in empty fuel drums that are vented, and allow the carcasses to decompose.

    Mother Nature has destroyed most of the carcasses near Savoonga, with foxes and gulls digging through ice for meals, said Mitchell Kiyuklook, president of the tribal government on Savoonga. People often eat murres this time of year, hanging them to dry and later boiling them to eat.

    The tribe has issued broadcasts on the VHF radio warning people not to eat the dead birds, which seem to have stopped washing ashore. People aren't expecting the die-offs to hurt food supplies, he said. One bright spot is the village recently landed a 55-foot whale. That should help bolster dwindling food supplies, he said.

    A lot of people are happy right now, he said.

    Though avian cholera has never been reported in Alaska, an outbreak involving common eiders and snow geese occurred in Canada in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

    Beckmen said avian cholera, which is unrelated to human cholera, has probably been in Alaska for eons, quietly causing die-offs in birds when large number of waterfowl congregate, she said. But those die-offs were probably never noticed and the bacteria went undetected.

    It was the right place, right time, she said. The villages sent off fresh carcasses, they got right to the lab and we got a diagnosis hands down. That's the most exciting part about this. It's unusual to get a diagnosis so fast.

    In contrast, the hunt for what has killed and sickened scores of Alaska seals since 2011 continues, with a team of international scientists unable to determine a cause so far.

    Kiyuklook said islanders have seen such die-offs before, and those may have also been from avian cholera.

    It's happened many times, Kiyuklook said. This is first time we send it and get them analyzed.

    Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

  • 11/21/2013:  Wild diseases: Threats concern wildlife officials, Independent Record
    (Link to the original article)


    BILLINGS Jared Jansen remembers traveling into the field to fix fence on his fathers ranch southwest of Lavina and coming across 20 to 30 dead deer spread out in a coulee.

    That was a decade ago. Since then, he said, he and his father, Mike, have seen up to 100 dead deer at a time along the Musselshell River.

    Disease likely bluetongue or its near-cousin, epizootic hemorrhagic disease had killed the deer. Death is usually quick, within about three days of the animal exhibiting signs of infection. The continual die-offs have whittled the once hardy deer herds down to a handful of survivors.

    You have to really hunt to find a whitetail now, said Jansen, 26. Ive only seen three does this year.

    I used to see a good 40 to 50 head of whitetail over here, south of the Musselshell River, he added. It used to be when I was haying along the river, early in the morning, Id see 200 to 500 head in the meadows.

    Killer names

    The names sound like something out of a science fiction thriller: epizootic hemorrhagic disease, sylvatic plague, bluetongue, brucellosis, chytrid, chronic wasting disease, West Nile virus. Yet the all-too-real afflictions threaten to reduce the populations of wild mammals, birds and reptiles across Montana, Wyoming and other regions of the United States if left unchecked.

    There is a general consensus among scientists that we are seeing more disease, said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    If you look at the history of wildlife management agencies in general, they are paying more attention to wildlife diseases and realizing how important they can be, said Jennifer Ramsey, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks veterinarian in Bozeman.

    The consequences of such losses extend beyond the immediate concerns of hunters and wildlife watchers who may find fewer animals on the landscape.

    The loss or decline of some species could mean decreased income for hunting retailers and for ranchers who could lose access to federal grazing lands if sage grouse numbers drop and protection of their remaining habitat requires the exclusion of cattle. Some wildlife diseases, such as West Nile virus, can also sicken and kill people who are infected.

    The ecological repercussion of the loss of species, and the ecosystem services they provide, are huge, Sleeman said. One study estimated that bats alone provide $2 billion to $50 billion to the agricultural economy in pest control.

    If bat numbers decline substantially, farmers may have to shoulder more of that cost by increasing the use of pesticides, Sleeman said. And that could bring unknown environmental costs.

    Spreading out

    In recent years, outbreaks of some diseases have increased in frequency and spread to regions previously unaffected. Areas that had seen infections are experiencing more outbreaks and higher mortality.

    An example is the rash of epizootic hemorrhagic disease this fall in northwestern Montana, where an estimated 400 white-tailed deer died.

    That was the first case of EHD documented west of the (Continental) Divide, Ramsey said. Weve had it in eastern Montana year after year after year.

    So what was different about this summer that allowed the disease to migrate farther west?

    Sleeman said the biting midge that spreads EHD thrives in warmer weather and drought, which the Missoula area was experiencing this summer. Climate change could be responsible.

    Theres an increase in hemorrhagic diseases where we havent seen them before, in the northern latitudes where its been too cool for the midge to survive, and the outbreaks that do occur are of greater severity, he said. We actually did a study of hemorrhagic disease in Virginia and found a close correlation between outbreaks, temperature and precipitation.

    Warmer winters and summers help the midges in several ways. There is a higher incidence of larvae survival. The midges like to breed in mudflats left when water recedes from ponds and lakes in dry periods. The midges are more active when it is warmer. And it seems that the virus replicates to a greater degree in warm weather, meaning that when a midge bites an animal, it gets a stronger dose of the virus.

    EHD typically ends when theres a hard frost that kills the midges.

    A lot of times, the whitetail deer population bounces back pretty well, so theres no big push to control the vectors of the disease by spraying pesticides, Ramsey said.

    Under the radar

    Ramsey noted that while there are Montana counties that perform pest control to reduce the numbers of insects like mosquitoes, which can spread West Nile virus, most of the spraying is directed to preserving human or livestock health, not wildlife.

    Theres never really been any discussion between those folks and us to spray for this specific insect, she said, but she didnt rule it out if an outbreak was severe enough.

    In Wyoming, developers of some coalbed methane wells are required to spray their ponds that hold discharged water to control mosquitoes. One study showed that sage grouse, a threatened species, were dying at higher rates from West Nile virus near such ponds. Mosquitoes spread the disease.

    The development of coalbed methane wells also involved other factors that could be reducing the number of sage grouse, including more vehicle traffic and the construction of power lines on which hawks could sit to search out sage grouse as prey.

    Such factors point to another, multipronged assault on wildlife populations human beings.

    The drivers of an increase in wildlife diseases are mostly related to human development, encroachment, the spilling over of disease because wildlife are more concentrated, Sleeman said. Thats why we think were seeing more outbreaks of avian cholera. Theres also the increasing movement of people across borders. A lot of the disease threats have international origins.

    West Nile virus and white nose syndrome are both believed to have traveled to the United States from Europe. White nose syndrome is blamed in the deaths of 5.7 million U.S. bats and has led to the closure of many caves on public lands to protect the animals. Its believed that cave explorers spread the disease with unwashed boots.

    Preventing disease

    So far, scientists have found only a few ways to combat the spread of wildlife diseases. In preventing the spread of brucellosis from elk to cattle, wildlife managers have been focusing on keeping the animals separated in the spring when cow elk give birth to calves. The disease can be spread through infected birth tissues. Scientists are studying the use of birth control in bison to prevent the spread of brucellosis.

    In the case of chronic wasting disease, entire herds of infected deer have been killed to try to stop its spread, which is believed to come from contact between infected animals or from ground infected by diseased animals.

    Sleeman said that a study in Wisconsin showed that controlling the spread of CWD worked better if animals on the outlying edges of the outbreak were killed instead of those at the heart of the infection.

    Its like a controlled burn on the edges of a fire, he said.

    One of the most promising techniques recently developed is an orally administered vaccine against sylvatic plague, which infects prairie dogs that are the main food source for endangered black-footed ferrets. Until a colony of ferrets was discovered in Wyoming in 1981, they were believed to be extinct.

    In the past, researchers have dusted prairie dog colonies to kill the fleas that spread the disease. The dusting was time-consuming and not always effective. But Sleeman said that the development of a vaccine that can be given orally to prairie dogs on a bait is showing promise.

    This is a technique that should be looked at in other areas, he said. Its shown great promise in Western states.

    Warriors in the fight

    With so many diseases afflicting such a wide variety of animals, you would think that field workers like FWPs Ramsey, as well as lab researchers like Sleeman, would feel overwhelmed.

    Im an optimist, Sleeman said. We do have several tools to manage these issues.

    He noted that scientists now have more detailed models of diseases, enabling them to exploit weak points in the life cycle with treatments. There is also work on diagnostic tools to enable earlier detection of pathogens, as well as ways to test live animals for disease rather than waiting to necropsy dead ones.

    But compared with support for researchers studying human and domestic livestock diseases, funding for state and national agencies involved in understanding and controlling wildlife diseases is substantially smaller. Conservation groups, realizing the threats to species they value, have stepped in to help out.

    For Montana, concern about the decline of moose is one of the most recent focuses for state researchers. A study is being conducted in northwestern Montana to examine the possible causes to see if moose numbers can be revived.

    I think everyone is a little concerned about moose, Ramsey said. We know there are these parasites, but we dont know if its playing a huge role in their decline.

    She noted, however, that even if the mooses decline in Montana can be narrowed down to a particular health issue such as parasites treating a moose, or any wildlife, is difficult even if a cure is known and available.

    We cant just round them up in a corral and vaccinate them, she said.

  • 10/23/2013:  Patrick Durkin: CWD Puzzle Only Getting Harder to Put Together, Wisconsin State Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    If chronic wasting disease hasnt concerned you the past 11 years because youre a vegan, vegetarian or someone who avoids venison, recent research suggests your CWD exemption might be ending.

    In case you missed it, Christopher Johnson at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison discovered plants take up prions infectious, deformed proteins that cause CWD from contaminated soils and store them in stems and leaves.

    In turn, when Johnson injected these materials into laboratory mice, they showed evidence of the disease. Johnson is awaiting test results to determine if other lab mice caught the disease after eating infected plants.

    Johnson wrote: Our results suggest that prions are taken up by plants, and that contaminated plants may represent a previously unrecognized risk of human, domestic species and wildlife exposure to CWD.

    Johnson was scheduled to present his findings Monday in Milwaukee at the annual meeting of The Wildlife Society. However, because hes employed by the U.S. Geological Survey, his talk was canceled by the governments budget impasse, and he cant share more insights for now.

    Because prions arent living organisms, they remain infectious indefinitely, whether theyre in soil or living matter. And although CWD prions were once thought confined to the brain, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes and spinal cord of deer and elk, theyve since been found at lower levels in their eyes, heart, blood, urine, saliva and muscles.

    So far, science has found no evidence CWD can infect humans who eat contaminated venison, but the World Health Organization and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advise people not to eat CWD-positive animals.

    The state of Wyoming adds this warning: Until more is known about the human health risk, individuals may want to consider the theoretical possibility that a yet-to-be-determined human health risk may exist before consuming CWD-infected animals.

    Johnsons findings raise concerns beyond deer huntings world. One unknown is whether plants alter CWD prions in ways that make them increasingly infectious. Laboratory tests show prions injected into mice can change enough that even though the first mouse doesnt die, its tissues kill mice in subsequent injections.

    We also dont know how much prion concentrations vary by individual plants and plant species, or how much prion uptake through roots varies by soil-contamination levels. And depending on whether Johnsons lab mice contract CWD by eating prion-tainted plants, we need to learn whether it takes one spoonful or one barnful of the stuff.

    Therefore, if I were Gov. Scott Walker, Id ask if we should start planning research gardens at the former Stan Hall deer farm near Almond in Portage County. That would better use state-agency resources than his edict to draft rules to spare captured fawns in the CWD zone from state-sponsored euthanization.

    You might recall Halls farm, otherwise known as Buckhorn Flats, was a commercial deer-breeding and shooting preserve. After the state closed the 80-acre operation in 2005 and killed the 76 deer in its breeding pen in January 2006, tests revealed 60 of the whitetails (80 percent) carried CWD.

    Its North Americas worst CWD infection. In fact, its soils are so tainted the state had to buy the property. The DNR intends to make it a research facility, so what better place to test how efficiently potatoes, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, broccoli, green beans and other common food plants pull prions from CWD-tainted soils, and pass them along?

    So far, Johnson has tested corn, alfalfa, tomatoes and thale cress a small, flowering plant used in plant-science research.

    We should also plant grape vines, and oak, pear, plum, apple, cherry, walnut and hickory trees at the Hall property. After all, the prions wont disappear soon.

    Consider the stakes: If state and federal agencies think it prudent to tell hunters to destroy prion-contaminated venison, will they soon warn everyone about prion-tainted plants? For that matter, will they stop farmers from buying, selling and transporting hay bales out of our CWD zone? Its illegal to haul deer carcasses from there unless youre headed to a taxidermist or butcher shop.

    And what about backyard gardens, morel mushrooms, wild raspberries and feed-grains growing in that ever-expanding CWD zone? Should we assume theyre prion-free? And if Great Britain and other countries wont import U.S. animal feeds containing CWD-exposed meat byproducts, will they next ban plant-based feeds?

    Granted, its silly to suggest raiding farmers markets and roadside stands that sell foods grown in CWD areas. We simply dont know enough to risk another CWD panic.

    But this much is certain: As weve slowly assembled the CWD puzzle piece by piece since 2002, the picture has only grown uglier. Meanwhile, lawmakers worked harder to stop research for more puzzle pieces than they did to control our deer herd, CWDs undisputed chief carrier.

    Their negligence might doom them yet.

  • 10/23/2013:  Chronic wasting disease: forgotten, but not gone, High Country News
    (Link to the original article)


    As an environmental journalist, I know full well how difficult it can be to get people interested in a creeping problem. Climate change is a perfect exampleits effects are hard to pin down and slow to develop. Wildfire, on the other hand, is dramatic, deadly and easily identifiable as a problem, especially if your house burns down. Climate change news doesnt break, journalists joke: it oozes.

    Wildlife diseases are the same way. Those that dramatically wipe out entire populationsthink white nose syndrome in bats or chytrid fungus in amphibiansgarner much more media coverage than ailments like chronic wasting disease, which affects elk, deer and moose. CWD takes years to kill a single infected individual and has yet to completely decimate an entire herd. Ive heard it called an epidemic in slow motion, says Christopher Johnson, a research biologist at the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.

    Despite CWDs slow pace, the disease isnt going away: since being identified in captive mule deer in northern Colorado in 1967, it has spread to 19 states and in Wyoming, close to 40 percent of deer in the eastern half of the state are infected, up from 15 percent in 1997. One mule deer herd in particular has a 50 percent infection rate for males, the highest known prevalence in all of North America. Now, researchers studying that herd say theyre finally getting to a point where they can document how CWD slowly destroys an entire population, not just individuals. The preliminary findings arent good: the herds size has been cut in half in the past 12 years, and the drop seems to be related to CWD-induced deaths, says Melia DeVivo, a PhD student at University of Wyoming.

    Yet there seems to be little general interest in CWD, and researchers say federal funding has decreased in recent years even as infection rates rise. The negative effects arent in your face immediately, DeVivo says, but it is going to really hurt some of these populations if not completely wipe them out.

    CWD is a strange disease. It incubates inside infected deer, elk or moose for years before symptoms show up. The disease is carried by prions, an infectious protein that attacks the brain, which cause infected animals to lose their appetite. As they slowly starve, they begin to display weird behaviors: pacing, walking with their heads lowered, drooling and stumbling.

    Because CWD takes so long to manifest itself, its difficult to manage. The state of Wisconsin took an especially aggressive approach and tried to kill off most of its infected deer, creating longer hunting seasons and requiring hunters to kill a doe before shooting a buck, but the disease still spread. Thats because prions persist for years in the environment, says Johnson. They build up, and even amplify, in soil, infecting deer, elk and moose as they graze, and may even be taken up by the plants themselves. They linger in the feces and bodily fluids of infected animals and inside their carcasses after they die. Researchers are now studying whether other animals that eat the dead deer, like mice or voles, can get sick, too.

    At the moment, the scientific consensus says the risk of humans getting the disease is low, even among people who eat contaminated meat. But that's still not a good idea, and many state wildlife agencies caution hunters not to shoot sick-looking animals and encourage them to minimize contact with brain and spinal tissues and get their meat tested. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because of the long time between exposure to CWD and the development of disease, many years of continued follow-up are required to be able to say what the risk, if any, of CWD is to humans.

    I wondered how much hunters worry about the disease, so I called Susan Smith, owner of Paonia, Colo.s wild game processing shop, to ask. Were in the thick of hunting season in Western Colorado, and pickup trucks full of guys in camo or day-glo orange frequently rumble down the main street. Do people think about CWD, I asked? A few do, most dont, she said, adding that hunters used to ask for their meat to be tested more often, but dont as much anymore. Scott Edburg, assistant chief of the wildlife division at Wyoming Game and Fish, has seen a similar slump in interest among Wyoming hunters.

    Why are people less concerned about CWD now, when its clear that infection rates are rising? Cause theyre not reading about it in the newspaper every day, says Michael Miller, senior wildlife veterinarian with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Part of the problem, to be quite honest, is we know its there, we kind of have this nagging suspicion that its having some effect, but its been really hard to point to something clear. And we really dont have a lot we can do about it.

    Plus, previous efforts to control CWD were really unpopular. In the early 2000s, Colorado, like Wisconsin, tried to cull its deer population, but the public protested. They didnt see the clear effects of the disease on deer abundance, Miller says, but they saw the effects of our management on deer abundance. After a few years, the culling stopped.

    The most recent state to discover infected deer was Pennsylvania. Last March, according to The Altoona Mirror, hunters turned a middle school auditorium into a sea of camouflage during a presentation from the states Game Commission about how to manage CWD. "There is no place where this disease has ever occurred that it has been stopped," said Walt Cottrell, a veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "There are two things the disease does when it arrives: It gets worse, and it spreads."

    And, eventually, it fades into the background, like so many other creeping environmental problems.

  • 10/21/2013:  Prions in plants? New concern for chronic wasting disease, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
    (Link to the original article)


    Prions the infectious, deformed proteins that cause chronic wasting disease in deer can be taken up by plants such as alfalfa, corn and tomatoes, according to new research from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

    The research further demonstrated that stems and leaves from tainted plants were infectious when injected into laboratory mice.

    The findings are significant, according to the researchers and other experts, because they reveal a previously unknown potential route of exposure to prions for a Wisconsin deer herd in which the fatal brain illness continues to spread. The disease has also become a pressing issue nationwide: The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the deer disease in 17 states and predicts it will spread to other states.

    In Wisconsin, where the state Department of Natural Resources has scaled back its efforts to slow the spread of CWD, some critics say the new research should cause the agency to revisit its approach.

    Michael Samuel, a CWD researcher and wildlife ecology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the plant research, said the new study is significant. Previous studies have shown the disease can be transmitted animal-to-animal and via soil.

    Its important because it identifies a potential pathway, Samuel said of the study.

    Christopher Johnson, who conducted the study, wrote in the abstract: Our results suggest that prions are taken up by plants and that contaminated plants may represent a previously unrecognized risk of human, domestic species and wildlife exposure to CWD.

    The research has not yet been submitted for publication in a scientific journal.

    The study focused on those prions similar to those causing CWD in deer.

    The disease is one of a class of neurological, prion-caused diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, including scrapie in sheep and goats, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. CWD was discovered in Wisconsins deer herd in 2002 and has been found since the mid-1990s in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.

    Johnson is scheduled to present his research at the annual meeting of The Wildlife Society in Milwaukee in October. Johnson studies CWD at the federal wildlife disease center, which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey. His earlier work found CWD prions can linger in and be amplified and transmitted by soil.

    Major review needed?

    James Kazmierczak, the state public health veterinarian, said that a molecular species barrier, though little understood, appears to have so far prevented the CWD prions from making people and cattle sick.

    Also, Kazmierczak said, data reported to the Wisconsin Division of Public Health show little deviation from the national rate a little above one case per million people in annual cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Nor, he added, does data on more than 800 Wisconsin hunters who have consumed CWD-tainted venison show any human cases of prion brain disease.

    Nationwide, according to the CDC, no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported.

    Even so, the threat of CWD transmission by crop and food plants and the newly discovered potential for exposure to humans and livestock has prompted some to say the state Department of Natural Resources should reconsider its CWD policy.

    That is very disconcerting, George Meyer, executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said of the research.

    My impression, said Meyer, a former DNR secretary, is (that) it should cause a major review of the very weak CWD strategy that is being pursued by the DNR.

    Dave Clausen, former chairman of the Natural Resources Board and a veterinarian who has studied CWD, has also criticized the DNR for being passive on the disease.

    He agreed with Meyer that the new research should give the agency pause. He said the potential presence of prions in plants is not only a public health concern but has big implications for our agricultural economy, not just in this state but all across the country.

    Disease has spread

    Soon after the discovery of CWD in Wisconsin, the DNR embarked on an aggressive effort to halt spread of the disease by putting in place additional and longer hunting seasons, requiring hunters to shoot a female deer before taking a buck, and hiring sharpshooters to kill deer.

    But the ambitious program grew unpopular with hunters and landowners, and the number of hunters participating in the states annual deer hunt declined. Meanwhile, the disease spread.

    The DNR reports that prevalence of the disease has increased in all sex and age classes of deer. During the past 11 years, for example, agency data estimates prevalence in adult males has risen from 8 to 10 percent, to more than 20 percent. And in adult females, the prevalence has grown from about 3 or 4 percent to about 9 percent.

    In a disease hot spot in southwestern Wisconsin, CWD prevalence has increased to 27 percent among deer 2 years or older, according to DNR statistics. The growth was called frightening by Robert Rolley, a DNR researcher who worked on the study.

    And the disease has spread far beyond where it originally showed up. Two years ago, the disease was discovered in a doe in Washburn County in northeastern Wisconsin. Testing has turned up no other infected deer in the area.

    Administration scaled back CWD

    Gov. Scott Walker promised hunters while campaigning that he would reevaluate the agencys approach to deer hunting and the disease. After his election, he hired Texas deer expert James Kroll for the job.

    Kroll downplayed the potential impact of CWD, both in his report to Walker and in a July white paper on the disease. He did not return phone calls seeking comment on the prion plant study.

    In the white paper, Kroll cited studies of the Wisconsin deer herd from 2003 to 2007 showing no increased mortality rates from CWD. He also wrote, it is my opinion CWD does not pose a threat to human health, citing studies on the lack of transmission.

    He recommended the agency take a more passive approach to the illness.

    As a result of hunter concerns and Krolls report, the DNR has eliminated many of the extra hunting seasons and regulations intended to reduce herd size and slow the spread of the disease. Testing for the disease has also dropped off.

    Research unlikely to prompt revision

    Tom Hauge, who directs the DNRs wildlife management program, said the new research is unlikely to cause the agency to reevaluate its CWD program.

    Current management is grounded in the reality of the present conditions, Hauge said. There is no science to indicate that human health is at risk to date. And livestock to date have not been impacted. That reality has shaped the socioeconomic response.

    Hauge also said the current political atmosphere has been a factor. He said the special CWD regulations wore thin on people and that manifested itself in a gubernatorial campaign.

    Until that landscape changes, Hauge said, we have to live with the realities we face right now.

    Concerns raised, but questions remain

    Tami Ryan, who heads the DNRs Wildlife Health Section, helped organize The Wildlife Society session at which Johnson will present his findings. She said she invited him because the agency is interested in learning more about the research. She called the initial work very important research but said she wants to see more data, especially on whether lab animals can become infected by eating tainted plant material rather than just via injection.

    Im also interested in the contamination level, Ryan said. What is the concentration and frequency of exposure that would result in infection? Is this as great a risk as coming into contact with another infected animal? A level of risk assessment is necessary.

    For the moment, she said, I dont hear alarm bells.

    Johnson said he is testing whether animals can become infected by eating CWD-laden plant tissues. He also said future work will address the questions raised by Ryan about the prion concentrations in plants necessary to cause infection.

    Were just scratching the surface here, Johnson said.

    But Bryan Richards, CWD project leader at the National Wildlife Health Center, said even the findings to date should be taken seriously by state and federal wildlife and public health agencies.

    The potential for exposure is undeniable, Richards said.

    Can humans get CWD?

    Clausen said the plant research should be considered in the context of other CWD studies. He said research has shown the molecular barriers that seem to have protected humans from infection may be more porous than some believe.

    In 2004, for example, a CDC study published in the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases concluded that the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, to humans indicates that the species barrier may not completely protect humans from animal protein diseases.

    The article also cited lab studies in which CWD prions were found to infect human prion proteins. Still, the article concluded, limited investigations have not identified strong evidence for CWD transmission to humans.

    Another study, led by Marcelo Barria from the Mitchell Center for Alzheimers Disease and Related Brain Disorders at the University of Texas and published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, showed that CWD prions in the laboratory can be manipulated over generations to change and become more infectious to humans.

    Our findings lead to a new view that the species barrier should not be seen as a static process but rather a dynamic biological phenomenon that can change over time when prion strains mature and evolve, the researchers concluded.

    Such science, Clausen said, should raise questions about a management approach to CWD that does not stem the spread of the disease and, as a result, increases the risk of human and animal exposure.

    The DNRs official approach to environmental contamination with CWD prions has been a yawn and a shrug. Whether concerns from consumers, public health officials or agricultural interests will change that is an open question at this time, Clausen said.

    John Stauber, an activist and co-author of the book Mad Cow USA, said the new research should be especially sobering in a nation he believes is ignoring a possible dangerous public health threat.

    The implications of prion diseases potentially (spreading) via contaminated agricultural plants is mind-boggling, Stauber said. Imagine people, wildlife or livestock eating a cereal or vegetable that could years or decades later cause an incurable, fatal brain disease.

    The best scientists have always warned that with prions, all bets are off. There is no other deadly disease agent as bizarre or invisible. Unfortunately, federal and state food and wildlife agencies have been ignoring the prion threat, downplaying its human health risks, cutting back on research, and pretending this will all go away. It wont.

    This project was supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

  • 10/18/2013:  Bighorn sheep may be at risk for TSEs, American Veterinary Medical Association
    (Link to the original article)


    Results of in vitro prion protein conversion assays conducted by the Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center suggest that bighorn sheep are likely vulnerable to scrapie and chronic wasting disease. The USGS study was published Aug. 9 in the journal BMC Veterinary Research.

    Bighorn sheep are economically and culturally important to the western U.S., said Christopher Johnson, PhD, a USGS scientist and senior study author. Understanding future risks to the health of bighorn sheep is key to proper management of the species.

    Bighorn sheep populations in western North America are in decline as a result of habitat loss and, more recently, epidemics of fatal pneumonia thought to be transmitted by domestic sheep. It now appears prion diseases are another possible threat to this species.

    Results of USGS laboratory testing revealed evidence that bighorn sheep could be vulnerable to CWD from either white-tailed deer or elk, and to scrapie from a domestic sheep. None of a small number of bighorn sheep tested in the study had evidence of infection, however.

    Our results do not mean that bighorns get, or will eventually get, prion diseases, Dr. Johnson explained. However, wildlife species like bighorn sheep are increasingly exposed to areas where CWD occurs as the disease expands to new geographical areas and increases in prevalence.

    The laboratory test results could be useful to wildlife managers because bighorn sheep habitats overlap with farms and ranches with scrapie-infected sheep and regions where CWD is common in deer, elk, and moose.

    Further investigation of TSE transmissibility to bighorn sheep, including animal studies, is warranted, the study concludes, adding that the lack of reported TSEs in bighorn sheep may be attributable to other host factors or a lack of surveillance in this particular species.

    In vitro prion protein conversion suggests risk of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, is posted on the BMC Veterinary Research journal website (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1746-6148/9/157/abstract).

  • 10/17/2013:  First case of Snake Fungal Disease verified in South Carolina, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
    (Link to the original article)


    A copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) that was found in Spartanburg County has tested positive for Snake Fungal Disease (Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola). This is the first verified case of Snake Fungal Disease in South Carolina.

    Scientists from the Copperhead Institute retrieved a Copperhead from Spartanburg County that exhibited symptoms of fungal infection. The snake subsequently died and was submitted to the United States Geological Surveys (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center, where a necropsy was performed. Results indicate the presence of Snake Fungal Disease and dehydration as the cause of death.

    "The emergence of Snake Fungal Disease is of great concern. It is being detected more and more frequently in wild populations," said S.C. Department of Natural Resources herpetologist Will Dillman. "Those populations may not be well equipped to deal with a novel pathogen. Its association with significant population declines in some species is troubling."

    Snake Fungal Disease has been identified as a potential threat to wild snakes and has been associated with significant population declines in some species in the Northeast. Some species of snakes seem to be more susceptible to the pathogen. The USGS reports that increased numbers of snakes from the eastern and mid-western United States are showing signs of fungal dermatitis and are being submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center.

  • 09/20/2013:  Stopping the slaughter of the bats, The Why Files
    (Link to the original article)


    Those white spots on the wing of this bat are evidence of white-nose syndrome. Based on the odds, this bat was lucky to survive the deadly fungus.

    As our canoe eases away from the muddy shore of the Rock River in southern Wisconsin, three guys languidly fishing on shore give us a glance and a howdy.

    Above the water, a thick swarm of swallows hunts insects in the fading light. Then they fly toward their roosts and are quickly replaced by bats equally hungry for insect protein.

    Globally, about 1,200 species of bats the only mammals that really fly play essential roles in pollination, seed dispersal and insect control.

    As we head toward the Illinois border, we see a few bats in the fading light. We hear many more from an electronic device that translates the bats sonar into something we can hear. From the center of the canoe, the machine snaps like a 50s-movie Geiger counter in a heap of uranium ore.

    One thing bats dont do is get tangled in the hair, says J. Paul White, a field biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Thats an old wives tale. Bats definitely will fly very close and almost hit you, but I have been in areas with 50,000 to 80,000 bats when they are swarming and mating, and Ive never once been hit by a bat. They are actually feeding on insects that are attracted to you. They are doing you a service.

    Sonar, or echolocation, allows the bats to see in the dark, but this high-frequency sound is not audible to the human ear until its translated by an instrument like the one held in place by bungee cords.

    The deadly fungal disease continues to spread in all directions from its epicenter in New York State. Red marks the last two years of expansion.

    Its a pleasant twilight for a canoe trip, but our goal is serious: taking a census of Wisconsin bats before white-nose syndrome reaches the state. Just six years after it invaded North America, this fungal disease has already killed an estimated 5.5 million bats in Eastern North America. Outbreaks have already been seen in 22 states and five Canadian provinces.

    White-nose has caused a massive die-off of unprecedented proportions in North America, says Winifred Frick, a bat researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Its a major conservation crisis.

    Its probably only a matter of time before bats in Wisconsin start dying in the caves and mines where they hibernate over the winter.

    But thats later. As darkness falls, White interprets the staccato beat: Little brown, big brown, another little brown.

    Little brown bats are the most common bat in the state. Elsewhere, they have been among the biggest victims of the alien fungus.

    Uncountable bugs smack our faces as we paddle south toward the Illinois border, and we cant know which insects the bats are eating. But bats, the only true flying mammal, need to score consistently. A little brown bat, the most common species in Wisconsin, needs to eat 600 to 1,000 mosquito-sized morsels per hour to obtain the energy for its airborne lifestyle.

    J. Paul White fidgets with the bat detector after the bat-counting trip in Beloit, Wis. Counts made before white-nose syndrome arrives are providing baseline data to guide a possible repopulation of bats after the epidemic is over. Rollover to see where we heard four species of bats during a one-hour paddle down the Rock River.

    Because the white-nose fungus grows better in cool conditions, its a disease of hibernation, when the bats body temperature is low, and its immunity is compromised.

    Despite a staggering wave of mass mortality among all six species of hibernating bats that occur in north-eastern North America,1 nobody has seen the disease in Wisconsin. Still, it has reached northern Illinois, only 100 miles away, and this summer, a research project led by Frick found the fungus although not necessarily the disease on bats at two Minnesota caves.

    Fungal spores can travel with the wind and on migrating bats, so the fungus could arrive any day. A just-published study of bats in Canada over 21 years found that the bats that changed their summer or winter location from one year to the next moved an median distance of 315 kilometers, and 20 percent of the movements were greater than 500 kilometers.2

    Data like this, and maps like the one above, have convinced White, along with a cadre of professional and volunteer bat-lovers in Wisconsin and other states, to frantically gather data about the airborne mammals in what we could call salvage biology. The goals are to fill biological black holes regarding:

    Where do the bats live, and how common are they in different habitats?

    Where do migratory bats spend the winter?

    In what caves and mines do the non-migratory species hibernate? If and when white-nose syndrome strikes Wisconsin, conservation biologists hope that knowing where they lived before the great dying began will aid restoration efforts.

    How does white-nose kill?

    Biologists have been scrambling to understand white-nose syndrome since it was first noticed in 2006. In 2009, a new fungus named Geomyces destructans was identified as the pathogen.

    A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in New York in Oct., 2008. Rollover image to see a scanning electron micrograph of a bat hair colonized by the fungus Geomyces destructans.

    Bat photo: Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Micrograph: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Although the white nose around the muzzle gave a name to the condition, the disease actually seems to kill by damaging the wings. Bat wings are unusual; rich in blood vessels and only a few cells thick, they exchange water, oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere, much like the lungs. Bats dont just use their wings to fly around, says Craig Willis, associate professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg, Canada.

    The fungus injures wing tissue, and the bats lose fluid through the lesions, like a victim of severe burns, Willis says.

    Electrolyte elaboration

    As the blood volume is reduced, the blood becomes syrupy, impairing oxygen transport. Lactic acid, a byproduct of metabolism, builds up, and the bats breathe heavily to get rid of carbon dioxide. further fueling dehydration, Willis says.

    White-nose syndrome in wings of little brown bats

    A 2013 study by Willis and colleagues3 found a loss of electrolytes in the blood. The bats looked like someone at end of a triathlon who has just drunk water, not Gatorade, Willis says.

    The result is thirst, which could explain why sick bats wake during hibernation. Evaporative water loss in torpor is a strong trigger for arousal, says Willis, and bats with the fungus warm up way too often, especially as they get sicker.

    If dehydration has you thinking about guzzlin Gatorade, the finding does point toward supplementing electrolytes. To test this, Willis plans to infect bats and give them access to a pediatric electrolyte supplement. They can wake up and drink if they want, and well monitor by video, so we will know if they are drinking or not, Willis says.

    Keeping bat caves healthy

    Biologists studying white-nose syndrome tape rubber boots to Tyvek suits to prevent the transport of spores from the white-nose syndrome fungus between caves and mines where bats hibernate.

    In the absence of any treatment to date, the battle against white-nose has focused on a standby of epidemics: containing the pathogen. Simply studying bats can be hazardous to their health, says White. While we are monitoring caves, we have the potential to transfer the fungus ourselves, so we go through strict decontamination, following Fish and Wildlife Service recommendations to make sure we not bringing anything from cave one to two.

    How strict? The biologists strip down to their underwear, even in winter, when they change clothes between caves. We must treat every site as if it is infected, White says.

    Cave explorers may well have moved G destructans to North America in the first place. White-nose syndrome was unknown until it was detected in Howes Cavern in New York State in 2006, likely after hitchhiking on the gear of cavers who had previously visited caves in Europe.

    The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North America is common in Europe, but is not associated with mass deaths. Red: Genetically confirmed records of G. destructans Yellow: Photographic evidence Green: Visual reports.

    People enjoy caving partly for the experience of running into a bat, so they tend to cooperate with efforts to stop the spread of white-nose, White says. Weve been trying make it as easy as possible for them, but still have made it clear that if they are going into caves, they must adopt decontamination measures.

    The fungus in Europe: Why no disease?

    Europe, the source of G destructans, looms large in the discussion of white-nose syndrome. European strains have much greater genetic variation than American ones, suggesting that the fungus has lived much longer in Europe.

    While both the European and North American strains of the fungus cause significant disease in North American bats, the European fungus does not cause severe disease in European bats, Willis says.

    Here are some hypothetical reasons for the disparity:

    Food: European bats may eat during hibernation. In the United Kingdom, Willis says, its often warm enough to hunt on a winter night, so maybe European bats have more opportunity to forage than North American bats.

    Behavior: The fungus may, through evolution, have changed how the bats act. We know that bats in both places cuddle to stay warm, Willis says. The hardest hit bats in North America form really big clusters, tens of thousands on the ceiling of caves, but we dont tend to see that in Europe. Smaller clusters could reduce disease transmission.

    Immunity: After long exposure, the European bats immune systems may defend against G destructans.

    Keeping an eye (or an ear!) on the bats

    As the threat of extinction looms, friends of the bats are working nights to learn more about flying mammals, White says. In Wisconsin, volunteers are using more than 30 of the gadgets that translate the high-pitched echolocation sounds to a lower pitch that is suited to the human ear. On these bat walks, as on that trip down the Rock River, the instruments can open their eyes and ears to a whole different world, White says.

    To date, Wisconsin has had almost 3,000 monitoring trips by foot, boat or car. There is a national plan for 20-plus states, to gather baseline data, and look at what happens after white-nose syndrome arrives, White says. In Wisconsin, We might hear 30 bats in an hour; in the East, maybe two bats. In a bizarre way, white-nose syndrome has been good for the bats. We have in poured a lot of money; at the start we were devoid of a lot of basic life-history data.

    Questions remain

    All that time and money still leaves questions to be answered. For example:

    Why exactly is G destructans so lethal? Scientists have found bats carrying benign fungi that are closely related to the white-nose strain. Comparing the genomes may identify exactly which genes on G destructans cause the disease. Determining what makes it such a pathogen should open an avenue to understand why it is killing, and then what you can do to intervene, says Jeff Lorch, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Can a biological agent control G destructans? Competing organisms help prevent disease by crowding out pathogens from the skin and gut, and some researchers are starting to test whether that strategy might help with G destructans. But Lorch warns about possible complications. Biocontrol has potential, but you have to find the right agent, and it has to be able colonize a bat at an abundance and for a long enough period of time that it can inhibit the pathogen. Organisms that work in the lab often fail in the field, and if a candidate microbe is found in caves, why did it not protect bats in the first place? More in this video.

    Does an infected cave ever become safe for bats? Maybe not, says Lorch, who collaborated on a study that found G destructans in the soil two years after the bats died. Fungi can often live indefinitely in the soil, which make them different from other pathogens. A virus has a selfish interest in not killing every potential host because the virus needs host cells to reproduce. Control for fungal disease is a lot more complicated, especially if there is soil or another environmental reservoir, Lorch says. We are not just talking about treating the host; we have to worry that the pathogen is always around, so the animals can be re-exposed.

    Will some bat species go extinct? Its a real possibility, says Frick of the University of California. Definitely, at least regional extirpation is of great concern. The little brown and northern long-eared have been hammered, are at risk of extinction. The Chytrid fungus has already caused extinctions in at least 20 species of frogs.

    Why do some bats survive?

    Researchers who dwell on white-nose are understandably concerned, but heres what some consider a bright spot: The disease is not always 100 percent fatal. Perhaps the initial infection is stimulating an immune response that enables the host to survive a second exposure.

    That, after all, is the basis for vaccination and adaptive immunity.

    Acquired immunity, Willis says, is a key aspect of understanding any infectious disease. To find out if the few bats that outlast an outbreak have immunity, Frick and Willis will compare them to unexposed bats after both are deliberately exposed to G destructans.

    Since white-nose syndrome is a slow-growing disease of hibernation, the results are likely to come in early spring at the earliest, Frick says.

    Finding immunity would boost morale among the legion of scientists who are combating white-nose syndrome, but A lot of work suggests bats dont have much immune response during hibernation, Lorch cautions. Even if they were previously exposed, and had antibodies, its not clear whether they could mount an immune response during the second exposure.

    The immune system is fairly inactive at the cool body temperature of hibernation, Lorch notes, which may be one reason why G destructans affects hibernating bats. We have seen caves where it takes a few years after the disease arrives for the bat population to crash, which could argue against the idea that immunity will help upon a second exposure. However, there does seem to be some type of resistance in some bats, whether it be behavioral or physiological, and this is very promising.

    Whats a bat worth?

    A little brown bat the most common species in Wisconsin eat four to eight grams of insects per day in the summer,4, equal to roughly 1,000 mosquito sized insects.

    The bats insect control is worth money, according to a 2006 study5 of a cotton crop in Southwest Texas. In a crop worth $4.6 to $6.4 million, the bats had an annual value of $741,000 per year, with a range of $121,000$1,725,000.

    The bats were most valuable early in the year, before farmers would see enough cotton bollworms to justify spraying insecticide. By delaying spraying, the bats were reducing the ecological and economic impact of pesticide spraying, the authors wrote.

    Extrapolating that number6 to the entire U.S. agricultural base produces a benefit worth at least $3.7 billion per year.

    But if youre not a farmer, why fret about bats when so many other worries are afoot? Part of it is a curiosity about nature, says Willis. Its the only mammal that can fly under its own power, and thats led to this fabulous ecological radiation, with 1,200-plus species throughout the world, in just about every ecological niche. They eat everything and sometimes have complex social lives. And they undergo some of longest migrations in the mammal world, akin to what the bison used to do on the Great Plains or the wildebeest in Africa.

    Frick answers the question differently. Bats are an integral component of ecosystems. They have an intrinsic right to exist. We as a society decided 40 years ago, with the Endangered Species Act, that we want to keep species around, that we value the diversity of the wildlife around us.

    David J. Tenenbaum

  • 09/19/2013:  Botulism tied to soaring loon deaths in Michigan, The Detroit News
    (Link to the original article)


    The common loon is among the most beloved birds in Michigan for its trilling call and diving acrobatics a key note in the soundtrack of the outdoors and a visual fixture along its shores. But the species is in trouble.

    Loon lovers, state officials and researchers are concerned about an escalation in the annual die-off of loons on the states shores through a strain of botulism.

    In most years, deaths total in the hundreds, but in recent years, most notably 2010 and 2012, the toll has reached several thousand.

    Many loons that die here each year are from other Great Lakes states. Michigans own population of loons is estimated at around 2,000, so the losses regardless of the birds home state are viewed with alarm.

    High-profile issues impacting the Great Lakes in recent years invasive species such as mussels and gobies as well as the spread of an algae called Cladophora seem to be contributing to the increase in loon deaths.

    Before these outside factors were introduced, the number of loon deaths from botulism wasnt as bad as it is now, said JoAnne C. Williams, state coordinator for the Michigan Loon Watch, a volunteer organization focused on the birds preservation. But they are increasing the instances and the severity of the die-offs.

    The Type E Botulism affecting loons is classified as food poisoning and is caused by food sources that are being tainted in ways they werent before.

    Botulism already exists in the sediment along the bottom of the Great Lakes, since it thrives in environments that have low oxygen. Cladophora removes oxygen from the water. As the algaes presence has grown in the lakes, so has the proliferation of the toxin.

    The contaminated sediment is picked up by bottom-feeding creatures like the round goby and the zebra and quagga mussels all invasive species. When larger fish and birds eat the infected fish and mussels, the botulism continues its way up the food chain until it reaches the loons.

    Death toll spikes in '10, '12

    The first major loss of loons from botulism came in 1963 when an estimated 3,300 died. A year later, another 3,570 died. But the numbers have been far more sporadic since: 330 in 1976 and 592 in 1983.

    2006 was the first year we saw it in this latest stretch, and weve seen it every year since, said Tom Cooley, a wildlife biologist and pathologist with Michigans Department of Natural Resources.

    The seven-year stretch has produced a statistical roller coaster for loon deaths.

    In 2006, state officials estimated the number of deaths at 2,985, and the total spiked to 7,500 the following year. The totals fell below 200 during the next two years before hitting 2,677 deaths in 2010 and 3,947 deaths last year.

    In Michigan, loon carcasses first start turning up near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park in June and July. Researchers said more are likely to be found along the Lake Michigan shoreline over the next three months.

    The northern portion of that shoreline is a staging area for migration for several species, including loons, ducks and grebes. As a result, many of each species wind up getting caught in the same botulism web.

    But its the plight of the loons that seems to have drawn most of the concern from the public. And Wendy Tater thinks she knows why.

    I would say it has to do with the call of the loon, said Tater, program coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society. Its really kind of ... a lot of people describe it as haunting. It travels over several miles.

    Theres something about being out in the wilderness and hearing it thats just very special.

    Checking a variety of angles

    That love for loons goes beyond outdoors enthusiasts. In Midland, the Great Lakes Loons are the Class A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers professional baseball team. And across Lake Michigan, the common loon is the state bird of Minnesota.

    To help keep the loon population from experiencing more dramatic reductions, researchers are studying the problem from a variety of angles.

    David Blehert, the head of diagnostic microbiology with the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, said scientists are challenged by the vastness of the Great Lakes.

    Pinpointing where loons are coming into contact with botulism is difficult when there are so many possibilities. To help even the playing field, Blehert and others are:

    Developing new techniques for identifying bacterium and toxins more quickly and cost-effectively.

    Performing sediment and invertebrate sampling at sites around Lake Michigan where dead carcasses have been found.

    Tracking loons and their diving profiles using geo-locator tags.

    Using information provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Great Lakes buoy network to track where carcasses washing up on shore may have originated.

    If we can identify the places and the situations where (where botulism is transmitted), Blehert said, then it may be possible for us to go in and manipulate the conditions there.

    From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130813/SCIENCE/308130018#ixzz2fLQF1hET

  • 09/19/2013:  Bats and snakes are the latest victims of mass killers in the wild, The Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    Jeremy Coleman was on the trail of a ruthless serial killer, recently studying its behavior, patterns and moves at a Massachusetts lab. The more he saw, the more it confirmed a hunch. He had seen it all before. He was looking at a copycat.

    The mass killer of bats under Colemans microscope, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has a lot in common with Chytridiomycosis, a mass killer of frogs and other amphibians. The culprits resemble a third killer, Ophidiomyces, which kills and disfigures snakes.

    They are fungi, and they arrived in the United States from overseas with an assist from humans through travel and trade. They prefer cold conditions and kill with precision, so efficiently that theyre creating a crisis in the wild.

    The death toll among amphibians, bats and snakes from fungi represents potential extinction events, said Coleman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife research biologist who coordinates the governments response to the bat-killing infection known as white-nose syndrome. Its so large, he said, that it cant be measured as far as numbers of dead organisms and is decimating populations as we know them.

    Together with a little-

    understood disease that is destroying honeybees, the mass die-offs are a huge concern. We anticipate there will be direct impacts with the loss of so many animals on a massive scale, Coleman said.

    Honeybees pollinate crops, and bats eat billions of pests that ruin them. Frogs and other amphibians help researchers find medical cures, and snakes eat tick-infested rodents that spread Lyme disease. But with little public and private funding, scientists are almost powerless to stop the plague.

    The field of fungal research is small, underfunded and often totally overlooked relative to its importance in the environment, said Arturo Casadevall, a professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. To my knowledge, there are no successful precedents for the control of fungal pathogens in the wild.

    The pathogens wiping out 10 species of bats, including 93 percent of little brown bats in the Northeast, and at least six snake species in nine states, such as the pygmy rattlesnake and common rat snake, may have been around for decades.

    But they have been mostly overlooked until recently, because theyre affecting wildlife that do not have a direct agricultural or human health impact unlike swine flu so they fall outside the traditional model of disease response, Coleman said.

    As the threat grows, federal and state officials are beginning to coordinate teams of scientists trying to stop it. In addition to working on the response to white-nose syndrome, Coleman is leading the effort to arrest the progress of the fungus affecting snakes.

    Fish and Wildlife was directed by Congress to pursue white nose and other fungi, but was not provided with funding for staff.

    Were tracking these killer fungi, and were trying to respond to them on a landscape of low interest and low budget, Coleman said.

    Not all fungi are bad; many are used in medicine, some help the environment, others are tasty. But some go rogue and become deadly. Fungi are killing numerous plants and trees in addition to animals.

    Researchers have a simple theory about how the bat and snake fungi reached the United States: They were brought in by humans through travel and trade. But theyre not sure why it appears that some have become lethal.

    After the bat fungus was somehow brought from Europe, possibly in the 2000s, a weird thing happened. For unknown reasons, it morphed into a stalker and killer of bats hibernating in Northeast caves.

    One idea is the environment is changing through climate change in a way thats making the disease more severe, said David Blehert, a microbiologist for the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. Some of the work we have done has been to go into caves and figure out how this fungus ... kills bats when theyve coexisted with other fungus in caves for millions of years.

    As many as 7 million bats have died, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimate last year. Many were discovered in ugly death throes outside caves.

    Since its discovery in Upstate New York seven years ago, bats have spread white-nose syndrome north to Vermont, as far south as Georgia and west to Oklahoma.

    About $40 million has been spent for white-nose research through last year. Although scientists better understand the fungus, they dont know how to arrest its growth.

    Bats, which eat pests that plague crops and mosquitoes that bite humans, are due to fly back into caves for their annual hibernation next month.

    White nose for serpents

    The snake fungus is being called white nose for serpents. First reported sporadically in the 1990s, it is now widely seen. Lesions jut from curves and cover the heads of snakes.

    Snake fungus spreads more slowly than white nose, because snakes dont move as widely as bats, Emily Boedecker, acting state director for the Nature Conservancy in Vermont, said in the groups blog, Cool Green Science.

    But they do share some habits, she said, such as hibernating in underground dens often with other snake species. Like bats, their immune systems are suppressed in hibernation, when the fungus prefers to attack.

    There has been a lot of money spent on white-nose syndrome ... but so far theyve been unable to stop the spread in bats. Snakes are even less appreciated by the public than bats.

    Amphibian killer

    The amphibian killer Chytridiomycosis chytrid for short is thought to have come to America in the 1930s with frogs used in pregnancy tests. In a process that could take hours, a womans urine was injected into female African clawed frogs. If the frog ovulated, the woman was probably pregnant.

    Some frogs escaped or were released. In the late 1990s, clusters of dead frogs in Australia were found to be infected, and in the past decade, infections were found in the United States.

    One-third of the worlds amphibians could be lost. The problem is so dire that public and private donors, including zoos and conservation groups, established an Amphibian Ark to preserve the animals and raise awareness of their demise.

    According to the Ark, 165 species are believed to have vanished, including 39 species that are known to be extinct in the wild but still survive in captivity.

    Danger to honeybees

    Compared with the threats to bats, snakes and frogs, the danger to honeybees has gotten more funding because bee pollination creates $15 billion per year in added crop value, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    From 2008 to 2012, federal and state officials spent nearly $20 million to update research facilities, conduct more studies into the colony-collapse disorder killing the honeybees and take steps to protect them.

    In spite of that, survivorship of honey bee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops, according to a report last year by the USDA National Honey Bee Health Steering Committee.

    Six million honeybee colonies existed in 1947; about 2.5 million exist today, vanishing at a rate of about 30 percent per year, the report said.

    The disorders cause is unknown, though some biologists blame fungi, disease and parasites. Scientists in the European Union pointed to insecticides, but the USDA rejected that theory, saying it was a combination of factors.

    Theyre feeding on crops treated with pesticides, Blehert said, but that it is just one piece of a complex problem involving different dynamics.

  • 09/19/2013:  Hunters asked to forgo lead use, Sauk Valley Media
    (Link to the original article)


    THOMSON The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is encouraging hunters to voluntarily use non-lead ammunition, especially for deer hunting, in an effort to save bald eagles.

    The agency collected 58 bald eagles in 2012 that had been found dead in various locations throughout the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, and examined them for lead exposure, the agency said Thursday in a news release.

    According to the release:

    The eagles were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., where 60 percent had detectable lead and 38 percent had concentrations within the lethal range for lead poisoning.

    Additionally, Iowa State University researchers conducted a study during 2012 and 2013, where they collected fecal samples at 54 active bald eagle nests on the refuge. The results found that 94 percent of the samples contained detectable amounts of lead.

    Lead bullets, which are used by many hunters, can fragment inside a deer. In the winter, scavenging bald eagles feed on carcasses and gut piles left in the field by hunters, and can be exposed to the lead fragments.

    With the exception of deer, squirrel and non-game hunting, like coyote or fox, non-lead ammunition is required in the refuge, the release said.

    Jeff Clark, owner of Amboy Sporting Goods, 42 E. Main St., said he doesnt think many hunters will rush to change ammunition.

    There might be a few people that might switch if they can prove that eagles are dying from it, he said. But the vast majority wont change.

    Switching from lead ammunition to copper or alloy brings with it an increased cost, Clark said.

    Hunters may also be slow to change because theyre skeptical of the connection between lead ammunition and eagle deaths, since lead ammunition has been used for a long time, Clark said.

    In 1991, a nationwide ban on lead ammunition was instituted for waterfowl hunting, after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lawsuit claimed millions of the animals had been eating lead pellets after mistaking them for seeds, the release said.

    About the Refuge

    The 261-mile Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is the longest river refuge in the continental U.S. The refuge begins at the confluence of the Chippewa River near Wabasha, Minnesota, and ends near Rock Island, Illinois. The refuge lies within four states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.

  • 07/29/2013:  Scientists Identify Key Fungal Species That Help Explain Mysteries of White Nose Syndrome, Science Daily
    (Link to the original article)


    U.S. Forest Service researchers have identified what may be a key to unraveling some of the mysteries of White Nose Syndrome: the closest known non-disease causing relatives of the fungus that causes WNS. These fungi, many of them still without formal Latin names, live in bat hibernation sites and even directly on bats, but they do not cause the devastating disease that has killed millions of bats in the eastern United States. Researchers hope to use these fungi to understand why one fungus can be deadly to bats while its close relatives are benign.

    The study by Andrew Minnis and Daniel Lindner, both with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Madison, Wis., outlines research on the evolution of species related to the fungus causing WNS. The study is available online from the journal Fungal Biology.

    "Identification of the closest known relatives of this fungus makes it possible to move forward with genetic work to examine the molecular toolbox this fungus uses to kill bats," according to Lindner, a research plant pathologist. "Ultimately, we hope to use this information to be able to interrupt the ability of this fungus to cause disease."

    The study is an important step toward treating WNS, according to Mylea Bayless, Bat Conservation International's director of conservation programs in the U.S. and Canada. "This research increases our confidence that this disease-causing fungus is, in fact, an invasive species," Bayless said, "Its presence among bats in Europe, where it does not cause mass mortality, could suggest hope for bats suffering from this devastating wildlife disease. Time will tell."

    White Nose Syndrome was first observed in 2006 in a cave in Upstate New York. Since then, it has spread to 22 states in the United States and five Canadian provinces and has killed large numbers of hibernating bats, a problem resulting in substantial economic losses. A marked decline in bat populations in the eastern United States was documented in a study published last month in PLoS One by Sybill Amelon, a research biologist with the Forest Service in Columbus, Mo., and co-authors Thomas Ingersoll and Brent Sewall. The study found cumulative declines in regional relative abundance by 2011 from peak levels were 71 percent for little brown bats, 34 percent for tricolored bat, 30 percent in the federally-listed endangered Indiana bat, and 31 percent for northern long-eared bats.

    In 2009, researchers identified the culprit behind WNS as a member of the genus Geomyces, resulting in its name Geomyces destructans, or G. destructans. Minnis and Lindner generated DNA sequence data and found evidence supporting a shift in the genus to which the fungus belongs, resulting in a new name: Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or P. destructans.

    "This research represents more than just a name change," according to Bayless. "Understanding the evolutionary relationships between this fungus and its cousins in Europe and North America should help us narrow our search for solutions to WNS."

    The study is based on a foundation of collaborative research among the U.S. Forest Service, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and is a continuation of pioneering research initiated by Canadian researchers at the University of Alberta and European researchers, including those at the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures in The Netherlands.

    "Collaboration is key to responding to problems as devastating as WNS," said Michael T. Rains, director of the Northern Research Station. "We have come a long way since we first encountered WNS, in large part due to the cooperation among government agencies, universities and non-government organizations. For this study in particular, USGS and Fish & Wildlife Service partners played critical roles collecting the fungi used in these studies. Problems this large will not be solved without unprecedented cooperation, and this study is a great example of that."

  • 07/16/2013:  Whooping cranes arrive in Wisconsin to train for fall migration, Wisconsin Gazette
    (Link to the original article)


    The 2013 class of birds that will follow ultralight aircraft to Florida has arrived in Wisconsin from the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

    Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership announced on July 16 that Windway Capital provided the aircraft and the pilots to ferry the young cranes from Maryland to Wisconsin. This transfer was the 30th such flight that Windway has made with endangered whooping cranes on board their aircraft.

    The cranes were taken to the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County, Wis. This is the third year that this training site will be used. The cranes will spend the summer with Operation Migration pilots and field staff getting acclimated, gaining strength and learning to follow the aircraft.

    This fall, Operation Migration will guide the young birds on their first southward migration to the Gulf coast of Florida, the cranes winter home.

    The birds are a portion of the 13th group of endangered whooping cranes to take part in a project conducted by WCEP, a coalition of public and private organizations that is reintroducing a migratory population of whooping cranes into eastern North America, part of their historic range.

    An additional batch of chicks will be migrating south as part of WCEPs Direct Autumn Release project. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation rear whooping crane chicks that are released in the fall in the company of older cranes, from which the young birds learn the migration route. The DAR cranes will be released on the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Dodge County, Wis., early this fall.

    Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin.

    WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you.

    WCEP founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

    Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals, and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding, and personnel. More than 60 percent of the projects budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations, and corporate sponsors.

  • 07/15/2013:  Prairie dog vaccine study has high hopes, Amarillo Globe News
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    Biologists are hoping prairie dogs in Dallam County have enough of a taste for peanut butter that theyll eat bait mixed with a vaccine that may protect them from bubonic plague, a disease that can devastate prairie dog colonies and spread to pets and humans.

    They also hope the vaccine does its job.

    Its a three-year study to see how this stuff works in the field, said Rick Hanson, a Forest Service wildlife biologist. It seemed successful in labs.

    The Cibola National Forest administration, which also oversees Rita Blanca National Grasslands where the scientists are doing the research, has banned hunting on units 21, 22 and 77 until the research ends, but not later than December 2016. Violating the ban could result in a fine up to $5,000 and up to six months in prison, according to the order shutting down hunting.

    The closure order and maps of the affected units is available at www.fs.usda.gov/cibola under Alerts & Warnings.

    The same test ongoing at Rita Blanca, about 25 miles north of Dalhart, is being performed in 18 other locations in the West in Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

    Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species because many other species that live in the grassland habitat rely on them for food and shelter, according to a Forest Service news release. Having a healthy prairie dog population will benefit species such as the mountain plover, ferruginous hawk and burrowing owl.

    They serve as food for animals like coyotes, hawks, eagles, foxes and bobcats, and their dens provide shelter for snakes and amphibians, in addition to nesting areas for the plovers and burrowing owls.

    Plague is most commonly spread by flea bites, so the only way to control its spread is to use insecticide on every burrow, Hanson said.

    Plague can infect lymph nodes, the blood or the lungs, according to a the U.S. Geologic Survey National Wildlife Health Center. Antibiotics are an effective treatment if given soon enough, but the disease must be treated quickly if it turns up in the lungs because it can be spread by coughing and quickly cause death.

    While there are 10 to 20 human cases reported in the U.S. each year, the diseases impact on prairie dogs is particularly deadly.

    Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to plague, and regularly experience outbreaks with devastating losses; 90 percent or more of the prairie dogs in a colony can die during an outbreak, often resulting in local or even regional extinctions, USGS states.

    The USGS website notes the vaccination program can be a part of conservation efforts for three types of prairie dogs and the black-footed ferrets that eat them.

    All three species are considered at risk, and have been petitioned for listing as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it aid.

    The program can benefit more than prairie dogs.

    If it turns out to be worth something, should bubonic plague threaten a city, this would give us another tool to go out in front of the storm and vaccinate the rodents that spread it, said Rick Gilliland, district supervisory biologist for the Texas Wildlife Service, which will be doing much of the research work.

    The drought has slowed the studys start in the Texas Panhandle because the disease and fleas thrive in wetter conditions, and the prairie dogs are struggling to survive.

    The prairie dogs are really chasing the grass thats still out there, Gilliland said. The area has gotten some light rain, so hopefully that will help them stay put.

    Personnel from Rita Blanca National Grasslands and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also will participate in the project.

  • 07/09/2013:  Conservation of Pennsylvania's bats is now 'survivor management', The Patriot-News
    (Link to the original article)


    Hoping to save some of the state's remaining bat populations, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has moved into "survivor management," biologist Cal Butchkoski recently told the board of game commissioners.

    Colony-hibernating bats, like the little brown bat and the big brown bat, that previously were the most common, numerous and widespread bats in the state, have been decimated by white-nose syndrome, an emergent disease that has wiped out millions of bats in 22 states and five Canadian provinces since it was discovered in New York in winter 2006-07. The disease is named for the white fungus, Geomyces destructans, that infects the skin of the infected bat's muzzle, ears and wings.

    "This is one of the most devastating diseases affecting wildlife in eastern North America," said Wendi Weber, co-chair of the White-Nose Syndrome Executive Committee and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service northeast regional director. "Best estimates indicate that it has killed more than 5.7 million bats."

    At one of Pennsylvania's largest hibernating bat colonies, Hartman Mine in Canoe Creek State Park, near Hollidaysburg, the bat population fell from 35,000 last year, when WNS was first noted, to just 155 this year, according to Greg Turner, diversity biologist with the commission.

    Butchkoski commented,"We are seeing some survivors out there in small areas, but are they due to small populations maintaining themselves or are they just prime habitat drawing in what's left" of larger populations that have been reduced by WNS? Bat-capture and -banding work is under way to answer that question.

    He urged protection for hibernation sites and surrounding habitat to minimize additional stresses on the remaining bats, noting that small hibernating sites may be determined to be the last remaining refuges in some areas.

    Turner said Pennsylvania is home to about 4,000 abandoned mines and 35,000 natural caves.

    "There's a need to legislation to protect these areas" from recreational caving, he said, noting that many organized spelunkers are already self-restricting their travels into some hibernacula.

    "Bat numbers are not what they once were, but the few that remain make management even more essential if we're going down the road to recovery," he explained.

    Commission biologists and volunteers across the state are in the midst of a monitoring effort to collect bat maternity colony data this summer.

    "WNS primarily kills during the winter, but the true impact of WNS on bat populations cannot be determined using estimates from winter hibernacula alone," said Nate Zalik, commission wildlife biologist.

    "Pennsylvania's two most common bat species, the little brown bat and the big brown bat, use buildings as their summer roosts. Abandoned houses, barns, church steeples - and even currently-occupied structures - can provide a summer home to female bats and their young.

    "Monitoring these 'maternity colonies' can give biologists a good idea of how bat populations in an area are doing from year to year. With the occurrence of WNS in Pennsylvania, monitoring these colonies is more important than ever."

    Participants in the study surveyed local bat colonies in late June and then again later this summer to gain a measure of how the colony grew through births this year.

  • 07/01/2013:  Rise in snake fungal disease draws researchers attention, JAVMA
    (Link to the original article)


    Wildlife officials are monitoring a fungal disease infecting certain wild snake populations in the Eastern and Midwestern United States.

    Fungal infections were occasionally reported in free-ranging snakes prior to 2006. But the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center has recently seen a spike in the number of snakes with fungal dermatitis submitted to the center and other diagnostic laboratories.

    Laboratory analyses show that the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola is consistently associated with snake fungal disease, but additional fungi are often isolated from affected snakes. To date, there is no definitive evidence that O ophiodiicola causes SFD.

    The most consistent clinical signs of SFD include scabs or crusty scales, subcutaneous nodules, premature separation of the outermost layer of the skin from the underlying skin, white opaque cloudiness of the eyes not associated with molting, or localized thickening or crusting of the skin. Skin ulcers, swelling of the face, and nodules in the deeper tissues of the head have also been documented.

    Clinical signs of SFD and disease severity may vary by snake species. Aside from the presence of fungi with disease-associated lesions, specific pathological criteria for the disease have not yet been established.

    While death has been associated with some cases of SFD, population-level impacts of the disease are not yet widely known and are difficult to assess because of the cryptic and solitary nature of snakes and a general lack of long-term monitoring data.

    In New Hampshire, clinical signs consistent with SFD were associated with a 50 percent decline in an imperiled population of timber rattlesnakes from 2006-2007. In areas where susceptible snake species live in small, isolated populations, the added threat of SFD may threaten viability of these populations. SFD has been observed in other regions without suspected or documented population declines.

    The wildlife health center has confirmed fungal dermatitis in wild snakes in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. However, SFD is suspected to be more widespread in the United States than is currently documented.

    Multiple snake species have developed SFD, including the northern water snake, rat snake, and timber rattlesnake.

    Jeff Lorch, PhD, is a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying SFD at the wildlife health center. The top research priority right now, aside from determining what the causative agent is, is to answer that question of whether this is something thats going to be a problem for all snake populations, Dr. Lorch said.

    We also want to determine what happens when snakes are infected with Ophidiomyces, he said. Do they all die, do some recover? Maybe the fungus isnt a widespread threat, but it could endanger small isolated populations of snakes by making their recovery more difficult.

    Several agencies, organizations, researchers, and other key stakeholders, including the National Wildlife Health Center, are working together to investigate this potentially emerging disease and to learn what impacts SFD is having on wild snake populations.

    Read about SFD and other wildlife health issues at the NWHC website.

  • 06/13/2013:  Scientists seek cause of puffer fish skin disease, Hawaii Tribune Herald
    (Link to the original article)


    Associated Press

    HONOLULU Red rice coral hit by blue-green algae off Kauais North Shore has responded well to a treatment involving marine epoxy, according to state and federal scientists, but theyre still trying to find out what is causing skin problems in nearby Hawaiian puffer fish.

    Somethings going on on that North Shore, Greta Aeby, assistant researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (http://bit.ly/13VcVUg ).

    Researchers in October photographed sites of dying coral in Anini. Trying to slow growth of algae, they applied marine epoxy, a material like clay, to bacteria on eight colonies of red rice coral. Eight nearby colonies were not treated.

    University of Hawaii and U.S. Geological Survey researchers returned two months later. The determined that 4.4 percent of each treated colony was affected by the disease. In contrast, about 65.9 percent of each of the untreated red rice coral colonies had been wiped out by the bacteria.

    (The epoxy) basically slowed the disease a lot, so thats good, Aeby said. She called the disease fairly lethal.

    During the October field work, researchers first noticed lesions on puffer fish.

    Normal skin color is olive green or brown with small polka dots. Diseased fish showed discolored, inflamed, ulcerated or rotting skin.

    In an attempt to determine cause and prevalence of the disease, researchers from May 29 to June 5 surveyed five areas three in Anini, one off Charos in Hanalei, and Makua Lagoon.

    No fish were seen at one site in Anini. At another Anini site, 22 fish were spotted and five, or 23 percent, were detected with the skin disease, Aeby said. In all, 70 fish were seen at four of the sites.

    Researchers plan to return to the sites in July, Aeby said.

    The blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is also affecting ringed rice coral and blue rice coral, and both have been proposed as threatened species. Marine epoxy will be applied to the other affected coral species next month.

  • 06/06/2013:  Avian botulism roadblock: one botulism test down, more research to go, Petoskey News-Review
    (Link to the original article)


    During the summer and fall of 2012, more than 1,500 documented loons washed ashore in northern Lake Michigan, dead from avian botulism.

    The latest counts come after a decade of bird deaths because of avian botulism triggered, researchers think, from the spike in invasive species such as round gobies, and zebra and quagga mussels.

    Brenda Moraska Lafrancois, regional aquatic ecologist with the National Park Service, is working with a host of other partners universities in Michigan and Wisconsin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Petoskey's Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, Departments of Natural Resources for Michigan and Minnesota, as well as many others to study the avian botulism outbreaks.

    But they have to rely on testing the shoreline where they suspect the botulism toxin is present, and less on experimenting with the toxin in the lab.

    That's because the toxin and the bacteria that produces it is restricted by the Centers for Disease Control's National Select Agent Registry. Researchers can have only half a milligram of the toxin in their labs at any time, and cannot culture the bacteria at all.

    An indirect measurement

    Researchers work around the restriction by looking for the presence of genes from the Clostridium cells in lake sediments, decaying algae, in invertebrates and in fish.

    "We know that toxin production occurs only if there's lots and lots of these cells. And it's strongly linked to water temperature," said Lafrancois, who is based in Ashland, Wis. "And we could investigate what happens when there's certain kinds of nutrients available."

    But basically, researchers are relegated to looking for genes in lake water, around where they suspect botulism outbreaks have occurred, or in organisms, such as zebra or quagga mussels.

    "We're doing that, and doing that successfully, and we're increasingly able to link the number of cells to different kinds of conditions. But it's always going to be an indirect measurement, when it would be more preferable to look at things directly," said Lafrancois

    "That's informative, but that's not measuring the toxin, and there's just a lot of variability in the environment. If you measure a couple feet over, you might get a different sample or result."

    Wind, air temperature, water temperature, lake currents these all can affect sampling. Too, all of those factors particularly temperature and the presence of rotting plant vegetation or nutrients from agricultural run-off can impact the botulinum toxin production.

    "If we could study this in a lab setting, we could control for all of those factors," said Lafrancois.

    Testing the environment

    In addition to testing for the bacteria gene, researchers are developing a more efficient way to detect the botulism toxins in dead animals.

    Researcher David Blehert, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, says studying where the toxin outbreaks occur will help solve how birds ingest the toxin. But the test researchers use now to detect the botulism toxin is clunky.

    Scientists first spin down blood taken from a bird suspected to have died of botulism in order to separate blood cells from the serum they float in. They use the serum to conduct the test, for which they use three mice, said MDNR's Tom Cooley.

    One mouse is a control, and gets injected with the serum. The second mouse gets the serum plus an antitoxin for type E botulism. The third mouse gets the serum and an antitoxin for type C botulism.

    Two mice die: the control mouse and the mouse not protected by the antitoxin. If the bird died from type E botulism the kind found in the Great Lakes the mouse that received the antitoxin for type C botulism would die.

    "Unfortunately, that's the best testing we have. It's the gold standard for botulism," said Cooley, referring to the term given to the best diagnostic test available for testing a process.

    "From an animal ethics position, it's not a very good assay," said Blehert. "We're stuck with an assay straight out of about 1905 in the year 2013."

    But Blehert is working with a pharmaceutical company, BioSentinel Inc., in Madison to create a test that would not require mice.

    When an animal is intoxicated with the botulinum toxin, proteins involved in sending neurologic messages are severed. The researchers' test turns those proteins into a biosensor, and those proteins turn one color if they're intact. They turn a different color if they've been severed which indicates that those proteins have been infected with the botulism neurotoxin.

    And, says Blehert, this new test could run 96 samples at one time.

    "We could be answering much broader questions that can hopefully get at the heart of what drives these environmental cycles and what's perpetuating these ongoing outbreaks of diseases in the water birds of the Great Lakes," he said. "We're now working to make some final modifications to the process that will streamline it, and will allow us to better reproduce it and make a commercial kit that would be available to all labs that wanted to use it."

    One scientific step at a time

    Establishing how those outbreaks occur can also establish where the outbreaks occur.

    For example, said Blehert, run-off from agriculture could cause an algal bloom and ultimately a botulism outbreak.

    "We could produce, say, crude prevalence maps for where the bacterium is and where it is not," said Blehert. "Maybe there's something you can do to control, in a targeted manner, eutrophication overfertilization in certain areas of the lake ... You could go out and physically groom Cladophera off that particular beach."

    But that kind of control takes personnel time and money which is why scientists have to establish that it is this Cladophera algae's rot that produces correct conditions for the botulism toxin.

    "It's good to have a way to confirm that first of all, you're addressing a problem that needs to be managed, and you have a means to assess the efficacy of that management action," said Blehert.

    Research from the bottom up

    Developing a streamlined test for avian botulism isn't enough, says Kaplan.

    "The larger question, one that's sort of perennially unanswered, is how does this (toxin) go through the food chain?" said Kaplan.

    Researchers aren't sure whether the loons are getting the toxin from gobies, or whether the gobies are getting the toxin from mussels or other organisms on the lake bottom.

    "Is it through the mussels or the fish? It seems the easiest way to test this is run it through mussels and test toxin in the mussels by feeding them to gobies and seeing how long the gobies live," said Kaplan. "I don't know if anyone's actually experimenting with that question. ... There seem to be limitations on what you can do with an experimental scenario."

    Some of those limitations include not being able to incubate the bacteria, and not being able to experiment with the toxin within the food web, said Lafrancois.

    "One of the ways scientists and toxicologists typically deal with toxins is with dose response experiments in the lab," she said. "That way, they can get an idea of how much toxin is required to kill particular kinds of organisms."

    Some organisms might be more susceptible to toxins. Loons might die from avian botulism more frequently because it affects them more severely.

    Or do more loons die because botulism outbreaks tend to occur in the fall, during migration, where more loons are in the Great Lakes?

    "It would be useful to be able to do some of those dose response experiments with a range of organisms," said Lafrancois.

    A passel of issues

    One thing Lafrancois is certain of: the toxin's restriction is just one of many obstacles in studying avian botulism.

    The Great Lakes are vast. Researchers think northern Lake Michigan is the epicenter for avian botulism outbreaks, but other Great Lakes don't have as comprehensive beach monitoring as northern Lake Michigan does, says Damon McCormick, co-director of the Upper Peninsula nonprofit Common Coast Research and Conservation.

    The Great Lakes also are subject to wind, weather and temperature all forces that can complicate studying this toxin outside of the lab. The food webs within the Great Lakes are complex, and the possible reasons for these outbreaks are numerous.

    "The scale is very large. The timing of these outbreaks is complex. We're dealing with a disease that is affecting birds year 'round, but it is also affecting birds as they're coming through," she said. "Is the toxin more prevalent in fall, or are more birds dying in the fall because, all of the sudden, we have this big influx of birds?"

    In short, the team from across the upper Great Lakes has a lot of questions still to answer.

    "There's a lot of variability that's been hard for us to get our heads around, and sample adequately to capture all of that," said Lafrancois.

  • 06/04/2013:  Representative takes underwater tour of Kauai's diseased coral reef, The Garden Island
    (Link to the original article)


    Chris DAngelo - The Garden Island

    HANALEI As part of a busy Aloha Friday schedule on Kauai, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard went in the water to see Kauais diseased coral reefs for herself.

    It was troubling to see what once was beautiful, vibrant coral reef decaying and withering away, the Congresswoman said.

    After initially being contacted by Hanalei resident Mike Sheehan, Gabbard accepted an invitation to tour the area and learn about the disease outbreak.

    It was important for me to be there, she said, to be able to gain a better understanding.

    It was a move that went over well with the scientists and biologists involved in the ongoing study.

    We were so pleased to have a member of the congressional delegation come out, said Dr. Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii. To see people that are in a position to help protect our natural resources is very important.

    Gabbards guides for the day included Aeby, Hanalei biologist Terry Lilley and Dr. Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist for the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Honolulu.

    The boat trip captained by Sheehan began with a short jaunt up the Hanalei River to look at the digging in the wetland, which Lilley says is causing a large amount of mud and sediment to be dumped out onto the reef.

    From there, Gabbard, her chief of staff Amy Asselbaye and Kauai field representative Kaulana Finn were taken across the bay to look at diseased coral colonies on Waipa Reef.

    Gabbard did little talking, but her eyes and ears were wide open.

    We explained to (Gabbard) how the land-use patterns are affecting the coral reefs, Work said after the tour.

    Gabbard said it was obvious the reef at Waipa is in bad shape.

    Its apparent to anyone to see the lack of fish in the area, to see the actual decay and the browning and withering away of the beautiful coral, she said.

    Gabbard described her experience Friday as eye-opening and said there is no question action must be taken.

    Im going to do whatever I can to help, she said, adding that she and her staff will continue doing their own research and working with the experts in the field.

    Aeby, who led Gabbards underwater tour, described Fridays visit as a rare event.

    Not only did Tulsi show the interest, make time to come out here and listen to the problem, but she actually got in the water and was looking at this problem first-hand, she said. This is critically important and were hoping from actions such as this that indeed people will start to take notice.

    Lilley, who first alerted scientists to the outbreak more than a year ago, said he was excited to finally start getting the right people in the water.

    Weve got 100,000 dead corals out there, dying right now, he said. And theres more people tonight caring about them than there were yesterday.

    The epidemic which Work and Aeby have now confirmed at several North Shore locations is caused by a variety of bacteria working together to rapidly eat away coral tissues.

    Gabbard described Hanalei as a beautiful piece of Hawaii.

    To go below the surface to see this destruction happening before our very eyes is very, very troubling and concerns me deeply.

    Gabbard said it is time to start looking at the bigger picture and the affect people are having on the ocean ecosystem in Hawaii.

    Awareness is usually the biggest way to be able to create the pressure to affect change and cause action, she said.

    Gabbards day-long visit to Kauai also included speaking at the Kauai Drug Court graduation ceremony and attending Kauai Community Colleges screening of The Invisible War, an investigative documentary about rape in the military.

    Following the screening, the Congresswoman participated in a panel discussion about the issue.

    Gabbard is a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard and one of the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress. Earlier this month, she introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act HR 2016 which would reform the military justice system by taking away command influence in the prosecution of crimes with a punishment of one year or more in confinement.

    Chris DAngelo, environmental writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

  • 05/30/2013:  Fungus threatens area bat population, Ironton Tribune
    (Link to the original article)


    When bats hibernate during the winter they slow down their metabolism greatly, including their immune systems, that is when a cold-loving fungus that has killed millions of bats over the past few years takes the opportunity to attack.

    The fungus, which causes a condition known as White-nose syndrome, has spread like wildfire since it was first discovered in New York in 2006. Wildlife officials confirmed the first case of White-nose on the Wayne National Forest in 2011 at the Ironton Ranger District.

    Weve never had anything like this affect an area habitat this strongly before, Angela Boyer, endangered species coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. Its still ongoing, its still spreading. We just dont know what things will look like when it is all said and done.

    The fungus thrives in the caves and mines certain species of bats call home during winter. Boyer said all species of cave-dwelling bats on the WNF have been affected.

    There is large concern for all bats affected, but perhaps especially so for the endangered Indiana Bat. One of only a few documented Indiana Bat hibernacula, the site bats use to hibernate during the winter, in Ohio is located within the IRD.

    In Ohio we are experiencing a significant decline in particular locations based on our winter census, Boyer said. We still have a lot of bats in Ohio, but we are expecting a continued decline during winter over the next few years.

    White-nose can be spread by bats themselves, or by humans who enter an infected cave or mine, become exposed to the fungus, do not follow proper decontamination protocols for their gear, and then enter another bat dwelling where they inadvertently spread fungal spores. Recognizing the spread from the North East, Jo Reyer, former Forest Supervisor of the WNF, issued a closure order of all underground mines, historic iron furnaces and tunnels within the Forest to help slow the spread of the disease and to protect bats during winter.

    While it is not known yet exactly how White-nose kills infected bats, it believed to be dehydration or a burn-out of limited fat supplies during winter months, Katrina Schultes, wildlife biologist with the WNF, said.

    The theory is the fungus disrupts their hibernation physiology, Schultes said. They often try to exit the hibernaculum during the winter months because the fungus causes them to wake up and they realize they arent in a healthy environment.

    And going out into the frigid temperatures with limited fat supplies, and no food for them to replenish that supply, is believed to be a significant contributing factor to their death, Schultes said. But both she and Boyer agree, in the end there are still too many mysteries surrounding White-nose.

    Schultes said everyone is doing everything they can to understand White-nose and ways to prevent its spread. She said there are massive monitoring efforts in effect and they are using the best available science to create forest management plans to best benefit the animals within.

    The fast-spreading nature of the fungus, and its being responsible for a sharp decline in bat populations, is especially worrisome to the agricultural industry. A new release sent out by The Ohio State University Extension shortly after the first documented case in Ohio highlighted the financial burden farmers would face from reduced bat population. The release stated farmers could suffer more than $740 million a year in agricultural loses.

    According to the United States Geological Survey, National Wildlife Health Center, White-nose syndrome has killed bats in 22 states and five Canadian provinces. While documented effects are still mainly concentrated in north eastern states and West Virginia, latest confirmed occurrences of White-nose are as far west as Missouri and south as northern Georgia.

  • 05/30/2013:  Bad news for bats: White-nose syndrome approaches Wisconsin's border, The Isthmus
    (Link to the original article)


    A disease that has caused devastating mortality in bats is now poised to make its way into the state.

    "The most recent unnerving news is that in LaSalle County, in northeast Illinois, they found white-nose syndrome in a mine," says Paul White, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "That's roughly 100 miles from our border."

    While measures have worked so far to prevent humans from spreading the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, its eventual arrival in the state is considered inevitable because bats themselves migrate, as far as 280 miles. That's why it's not looking good for Wisconsin's bats. The disease has been found not only in Illinois, but also in Iowa.

    When white-nose syndrome does arrive, it's predicted to decimate Wisconsin's little brown bats. "Unfortunately we're looking at a situation where the little brown bat, Wisconsin's most abundant bat, is also the bat hardest hit by white-nose syndrome," notes White.

    Scientists now know that the syndrome is caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which first appears as white fuzz on the bat's muzzle and wings and often leads to its death. First found in a cave in New York in 2007, the fungus spreads from one bat to another and then from cave to cave as the bats migrate to new hibernacula.

    Since hundreds and even thousands of bats often share close quarters over winter, the spread of the disease and resulting mortality can be devastating. White says reports from the East Coast show populations of 20,000 bats being reduced to just 20 a mortality rate of 90% to 100%.

    The fungal spores can remain viable in a cave even without any bats present, as well as on the clothing or gear of humans, who can then transport them to new locations, says David Blehert, microbiologist with the National Wildlife Health Center.

    The center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey and located here in Madison, is a national leader in the study of wildlife epidemics, from chronic wasting disease in deer to West Nile virus in birds. Besides tracking the spread of white-nose syndrome, scientists there are studying the pathology of the disease and even the bats' immune response.

    The fungus requires cold temperatures to grow, so it infects bats when they hibernate over the winter months. During hibernation, bats' immune system slows way down, leaving them virtually defenseless. When the bats wake up from hibernation and their immune system kicks into gear to fight off the infection, the resulting inflammatory response itself can endanger them, says Carol Meteyer, former wildlife pathologist with the National Wildlife Health Center.

    "The inflammation was so severe that as all of the immune cells started to attack the fungus, all of the tissue around it was also attacked," says Meteyer. So even if the bat does survive hibernation, it has the potential of the intense inflammation to get through.

    Wisconsin has taken a lead role in stopping the spread of white-nose syndrome, passing three laws to protect bats. In 2011, the state listed the four bat species vulnerable to the fungus as threatened, and listed the fungus itself as a prohibited invasive. Also, a law requires all caves to have a prevention plan, involving strict decontamination protocols for people's clothing and gear.

    So what will happen when the disease finally arrives? The loss of some major insect control. The little brown bat can eat its body weight in mosquito-sized insects each night. "If I were to try to eat my body weight in quarter-pound cheeseburgers, that would have to be roughly 600 cheeseburgers a night," says White.

    So fewer bats means more mosquitoes bites and more pesticides on crop fields.

    But before the bats become scarce, citizens can contribute to their conservation by helping monitor roost sites. They can even listen with an acoustic detector to bats using echolocation as they fly overhead.

    "You're walking your dog, you have a piece of equipment in your hand, and normally you would just be listening to cicadas or the random car beep," says White. "Now you'll be able to basically turn up the volume on silence and actually hear the bats as they go through."

    People can identify different species with the devices and even hear the bats feeding. Go to the Wisconsin Bat Monitoring Program website at wiatri.net/inventory/bats for more information.

    Families can also see bats up close, hear from local researchers, and explore an inflatable cave at the Wisconsin Bat Festival on June 1 at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The festival is followed by Bat Science Night, 7-10 p.m., with demonstrations of bat detection and capturing techniques. Details at wiatri.net/inventory/bats/batfest.cfm.

  • 05/28/2013:  CSI for Kauais wildlife, The Garden Island
    (Link to the original article)


    When Dr. Thierry Work talks about wildlife disease, his eyes light up.

    Were kind of like CSI for wildlife, he said. We try to figure out whats killing the animals by looking at clues.

    Work is a wildlife disease specialist for the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Honolulu. His name may sound familiar as he is one of a handful of scientists involved in the ongoing study of a coral disease outbreak along Kauais North Shore.

    Last week, for the first time in 10 years, Work led a workshop on Kauai about wildlife health in terrestrial and marine ecosystems in Hawaii and the Pacific.

    About 50 people mostly biologists gathered at the State Office Building in Lihue for the day-long presentation, which touched on everything from avian botulism and influenza to diseased sea turtles and coral reefs.

    In addition to a number of diseases present around the islands, Work discussed how he and his team at USGS conduct their investigations, as well as how local biologists can make better observations in the field.

    Work said partnerships are crucial.

    Im really a firm believer in this, that when youre investigating wildlife diseases, it has to be a team effort, with multiple entities involved, he said. These problems are really complex. Youre talking about animal behavior, ecology, meteorology, laboratory medicine, all of the scientific tools that are involved.

    Unlike in CSI, Work said scientists like him dont have the luxury of interviewing patients or witnesses.

    We really have to depend much more on our observational skills, he said.

    It is no secret that animals die. The question is whether the mortality is unusual.

    You dont want to be calling the cavalry every time an animal dies, he said.

    Work discussed the different infectious and non-infections causes of animal death, as well as the tools he uses in the lab, including pathology, bacteriology and mycology, virology, toxicology, molecular biology, serology and hematology.

    Although those tools are powerful, Work said each has its limitations. One of the biggest is cost.

    When someone tells me they think an animal has been poisoned, my first question is how much money they have, he said.

    Unfortunately, Work is often unable to come to a conclusion as to what killed an animal.

    We cant give you the answer all the time, he said. However, we can often tell you what didnt kill the animal, and that can be just as important.

    Kauais killers

    In the last 20 years, Work said USGS has received and studied 925 specimens from Kauai, mostly endangered or threatened animals.

    Most of what we look at is birds, he said. Followed by invertebrates, fish, mammals and reptiles.

    One big wildlife disease problem in Hawaii is avian botulism, caused by a toxin, which Work described as one of the most potent known to man. In many instances, infected birds quickly become paralyzed and drown.

    Weve had botulism in the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge ever since I can remember, said Work, adding that the disease is a significant cause of waterfowl mortality on Kauai.

    Last year, a large outbreak in Hanalei killed more than 300 birds, and last month, a small number of birds turned up dead.

    Work said it is important the area continue to be closely monitored.

    Were concerned about Hanalei because (it) is really the last bastion of genetically pure Koloa (Maoli) ducks, he said.

    Work also discussed the large die-off of Heart sea urchins along Kauais southern coast in February 2012.

    Unfortunately, by the time we got called in, it was near the end of the epidemic, Work said. So we didnt really get a lot of specimens.

    In the few specimens he did collect, Work said he saw inflammatory changes in the tissue, but no infectious bacteria or fungi were present.

    Work was unable to ever pinpoint the cause of the die-off.

    One of Works ongoing projects is trying to get to the bottom of a coral disease outbreak along Kauais North Shore, first reported by Eyes of the Reef volunteer Terry Lilley last year.

    Weve never seen this before in any of the other Hawaiian islands, he said.

    In the lab, Work discovered that the disease now documented at several different sites is caused by a variety of bacteria eating away the coral tissue.

    Work said the $64,000 question is why this is happening? It is one he does not have an answer to, but said the ecosystem is trying to tell us something.

    If the community feels the outbreak is a serious problem, he said it must do something to help the reef now, such as restoring wetlands and addressing the threats of overfishing and land-based pollution.

    By doing so, Work believes the corals have a chance to recover.

    Remember disease is a normal part of an animal population. Everything gets diseases. The problem is epidemic diseases, (like) what were seeing in north Kauai.

    While diseases in other animals are significant and deserve attention, Work stressed the importance of maintaining healthy coral reefs, calling them the rainforests of the sea.

    One of his biggest concerns is making sure the Hawaiian Islands dont follow in the footsteps of the Caribbean, where 80 percent of the coral has been lost.

    If we lose the corals, the ramifications are astronomical.

    Healthy reefs mean healthy fisheries, and ultimately healthy people, he said.

  • 05/21/2013:  $3K reward for whooping crane killer in Louisiana, Associated Press
    (Link to the original article)


    NEW ORLEANS A hunter in northwest Louisiana has shot and killed one of the first whooping cranes brought to Louisiana in an attempt to re-establish the highly endangered species in the state.

    State and federal authorities are offering a $3,000 reward for information about whoever killed one of the world's rarest birds. There are only about 600 alive.

    One clue is that a somewhat unusual cartridge was used to shoot the 3-year-old female crane.

    Gabe Giffin, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries enforcement division spokesman, says the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., analyzed a plastic fragment found in the bullet's track. He says scientists believe it came from a .264-caliber or 6.5mm bullet with a polymer tip.

    "That's not the only thing we're hoping on. But we can hopefully get some information on our tip hotline because of that," he said Monday.

    About 412 whooping cranes live in the wild and about 200 in captivity. This one was among 10 released in March 2011, when federal and state authorities began trying to build a self-sustaining flock in southwest Louisiana. Forty have been released in all. Twenty-five are still alive.

    "The shooting of this whooping crane is an insult to all law abiding hunters. We ask the public to please share any information that will lead us to the shooter," said Luis Santiago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in charge for the Southeast Region.

    Giffin said the plastic fragment was found during necropsy at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    Scientists in Madison are still trying to learn the cause of a younger whooper's death in May, said Robert Love, administrator of Wildlife and Fisheries' coastal and nongame resources division. That bird was emaciated but apparently died of natural causes, he said. It was in a group of three; when it didn't move on with the other two, biologists went looking for it.

    Based on data from the older bird's GPS tracker, investigators believe it was shot between April 10 and April 14. The body was found April 16, about two miles northwest of Loggy Bayou in Red River Parish the spot where the last GPS transmission was made April 14. The last movements tracked were nearby on April 10.

    That whooping crane is among the most far-ranging of 40 released in Louisiana since March 2011: it was found about 170 miles from White Lake in southwest Louisiana, where all are released. It had sometimes flown even farther northwest, into Bossier Parish, said Robert Love, administrator of Wildlife and Fisheries' coastal and nongame resources division.

    Of the first group of 10, only one remains a male that began building practice nests this year with a 2-year-old female.

    Two other birds from the first group were shot in October 2011 by teenagers in Jefferson Davis Parish. Since then, the department started education programs in southwest Louisiana about whooping cranes and the attempt to build a permanent flock.

    The latest shooting shows "we needed to ramp up public education and outreach. ... We're hoping to get more funding to do it statewide," Love said.

    He said the education seems to work. After a juvenile judge sentenced the boys to community service and probation for the 2011 shooting, the department invited them to participate in its Marsh Maneuvers summer educational program for 4H students.

    "They told us, 'If I'd only known ...'" they wouldn't have shot the birds, he said.

  • 05/17/2013:  Badger ammo plant salamanders stay youthful, but have virus, Wisconsin State Journal
    (Link to the original article)


    BARABOO They might be lucky when it comes to staying young, but it appears the now-famous Badger Army Ammunition Plant salamanders are less fortunate when it comes to staying healthy.

    Recent tests revealed the amphibians that dwell within old reservoirs at the former weapons plant south of Baraboo have a virus. Researchers have studied the salamanders because of their unusual ability to maintain youthful characteristics.

    Two water pools that previously were used for weapons production at the Badger plant soon will be destroyed, and state officials are trying to hatch plans for the tiger salamanders that have called them home for so many years.

    Considering the recently discovered virus among the population, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources now is trying to determine whether it would be wise to relocate the small amphibians.

    Were still determining to what extent the virus is present in the salamanders, said Mark Aquino, a DNR regional director. Its nothing new, and its not an unknown virus. It really isnt even related to the fact they have this unusual life history. Its just a matter of whether its OK to relocate them to areas where the virus may not be present.

    Scientists at the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center in Madison will conduct further testing on the amphibians. They also will examine salamanders from areas in which the Badger group may be released to determine whether that might cause problems.

    Aquino said some of the Badger salamanders will be donated to research. Others may be shipped to the Milwaukee County Zoo.

    The Badger salamanders were discovered in 1993 by a Nature Conservancy employee who noticed something strange about them. As they got older, they maintained their youthful characteristics and did not undergo metamorphosis.

    Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County suspected the salamanders ability to maintain their youthful glow was related to the constant water levels within the reservoirs. They conducted an experiment in which they placed young salamanders in large drums of water.

    The researchers gradually lowered water levels on some of the drums, and allowed others to remain full. They discovered the salamanders within drums that maintained consistent water levels did not undergo metamorphosis, as the others did.

    Ordinarily, salamanders begin life in prairie or woodland ponds and migrate to look for food when the ponds dry up. When they leave, they transform in a way that allows them to fit into their new environment.

    The water pools at Badger provided habitat with a good food source, so the salamanders never were forced to move on.

    Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/local/environment/badger-ammo-plant-salamanders-stay-youthful-but-have-virus/article_95965941-1f7c-5410-9501-e59eec3d64e1.html#ixzz2Ta9aMqGh

  • 05/16/2013:  What If There Is No Happy Ending? Science Communication as a Path to Change, Scientific American
    (Link to the original article)


    Fortuna, Panama. Friday 10 January 1997 We ran a transect on Quebrada Chorro and netted a bunch of tadpoles. The surprising thing was that we heard no Colostethus calling, although the habitat looks excellent, and saw no frogs. Next we ran a transect on Quebrada Arena and found a bunch more dead frogs (27 total now), but also a bunch of live ones. We even found two dying Rana tadpoles, one with a bloody lesion. It looks really bad for Fortuna.

    Thats my Karen Lips journal entry, from a trip to western Panama that was about to change our understanding of what we had been calling the Amphibian Population Decline Phenomenon. Four years earlier as a PhD student working in southern Costa Rica I had been surprised upon returning from my Christmas break by a sudden and mysterious disappearance of my study species and most of the other amphibians at the site. That had prompted me to move to Fortuna, a nearby site and set up new studies. The difference was that this time I had caught the epidemic, and was watching the frogs die before my very eyes. Dr. David Green, a vet pathologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, would conclude that they all had a skin infection that wed later learn was an aquatic fungus. Worse, it looked exactly like the skin infection killing frogs in Australia, and at the National Zoo. We had a global epidemic on our hands.



    Searching for frogs at the Rio Carti waterfall near Burbayar Ecolodge in eastern Panama. Photo: Grace DiRenzo

    Over the next 12 years, I watched as entire communities of amphibians hundreds of animals and over 100 species of frogs and salamanders succumbed to chytridiomycosis, the fungal disease caused by that fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd for short). It was stunningly fast. Entire valleys would be wiped out in a few months. It was devastating. We worked furiously to document and understand what was happening, driven to tell the world about what we were seeing. We cranked out definitive papers. More importantly, though, I felt personally responsible doing something.

    For me, that something was going to take skills you just dont learn in the lab or the field, so I applied for communication and leadership training through the Leopold Leadership Program. I wanted to learn how to better communicate lessons learned from the amphibian extinction I had observed in the hopes of alerting others and preventing new extinctions. I put my freshly honed communication skills to work, describing what we had seen in the field, and the impacts of those declines on populations, communities, and ecosystems. I gave lots of talks to many kinds of groups colleagues, hobbyists, zookeepers. I always hoped that somebody in the audience would have the right bit of information to understand where this fungus came from, how it worked, and how we might control it.

    Those early years were a whirlwind, but it felt good to know that by reporting on the losses I was helping conservation groups focus attention on the problem, I was raising awareness among scientists and citizens alike, and that organizations used this information to charge task forces, organize funding opportunities, distribute newsletters, and initiate global analyses.

    As the years passed, we learned more about the global distribution of the Bd fungus and the wide range of amphibians affected and in decline. The message changed from one of prevention to one of rescuing frogs in front of the wave, then of searching for ways to genetically modify the fungus to reduce its lethality. There was still a lot we did not know, but as new genetic tools and analyses came online it seemed like we were making progress.

    However, within the past few years weve come to several grim realizations: we cant eradicate the fungus from the environment, most of the tropical jungle areas of the world are already infected, and human trade has helped move this pathogen around the world. So, again, I changed my message to how we might control invasive species and focused on lessons from successful eradication of wildlife diseases. And again, my target audience expanded to include agencies and NGOs with the hope that they might be able to monitor diseases internationally or regulate trade to prevent introductions of infected frogs.

    Still, despite all our best efforts, its a Bd world now. Over the years, I have been moving my research sites eastward, racing to stay ahead of the epidemic wave as it burns through Panama, but now, I am out of sites and out of frogs. The kinds of questions we need to ask and the kinds of research we do are different. We are working at the Colombian border where Bd has already passed through and done its damage. We are now looking for evidence that survivors are evolving genetic resistance to disease. We still dont know where it came from, how it gets around, or how to get rid of it. Worst of all, we dont have any proven way to keep it out.

    There arent many places left on the planet where Bd doesnt yet occur. I dread the day when I hear that an infected frog has been found on Madagascar or Papua New Guinea where amphibians are still healthy. That will be a very sad day, because in the early days I never doubted that wed figure out how to stop Bd; now I am sure we wont.

    Its hard to believe that in just 15 years, Ive watched dozens of species go extinct. Its harder still to accept that despite our best intentions, tireless efforts, and expensive investments, we havent been able to save a single species. Not one. Not really. Sure, some species of frogs are safely housed in aquariums in zoos, but as long as we have no answer for addressing Bd where it persists in the environment, successful reintroductions and long-term solutions dont seem likely. And I feel terrible. I feel like a fraud, and I feel responsible, as if being an expert on a topic means I am expected to solve the problem.

    And the problem is bigger than just Bd. The full extent of the Global Extinction of Amphibians is now pretty well known, and it seems that we have not been able to apply any of those lessons to the most recent fungal epidemic killing millions of bats. The number of regional or global threats to biodiversity are increasing so rapidly that it is difficult to understand which factor or factors is involved, much less how to address them. I feel helpless, and useless, and wonder if it is time for a new conversation, one that reconsiders how we decide, prioritize, and even practice conservation measures.

    We are living in an era called the Anthropocene. It is characterized by unprecedented amounts of change in our physical and natural systems but also in our human institutions. We will see many more changes, and many species and many habitats will continue to disappear or become unrecognizable. We think we have the knowledge and techniques to revive some extinct species, and we have been successful at restoring some degraded habits. What we dont have are sufficient resources to individually repair and restore the rapidly increasing numbers of threatened species and habitats. The global economy has shifted, and we are still dealing with the rippling repercussions it has on funding to agencies, universities and individuals for research and conservation. Living in DC, I see firsthand the effects as numerous job cuts in conservation NGOs and federal agencies, and as shifts in priorities as donors of all sorts move away from biodiversity.

    Its profoundly frustrating to have a platform and a voice, but not to have a clear call to action for the public. A common theme in science communication is that we have to the audience care. And people do care a lot! They are eager to help, to offer suggestions, to get involved. But at the end of my talks there is no magic bullet. The truths I have to offer are not easy, they dont instantly make us feel better. If there is tough love, lets call what I have to offer hard hope.

    We know that humans are the main cause of these global changes, and while that feels overwhelming, it also necessarily means that we have a choice in deciding whether and how control the direction and dimension of these changes. The ability to control our planet brings great responsibility, and makes scientific leadership, communication, and ethical considerations more important than ever. As individuals, communities, and as a society we are going to be asked to make many painful decisions in the coming years. We are going to need creative, informed and well-spoken stakeholders from all areas to participate as we decide what we want to save, and why. Scientists will be necessary to provide information on he structure and functioning of ecosystems and the role of species, but in the end, engaged citizens will the those who decide what species or habitats receive funding or research or rescue.

    I am struggling to find a new message, one that moves past the death and destruction I have witnessed and beyond the feelings of helplessness and frustration, but one that is still honest and useful. I have been thinking about change and shifting baselines a lot recently, as I struggle to comprehend as everything from frogs and fish, to bats, bees and forest trees decline in number. I remind myself, Nothing is as constant as change. Its inevitable. This is the most honest and most hopeful thing I can say: evolution happens. Life is resilient.

    Where I work in the Appalachians today I am aware of the skeletal remains of American chestnut trees, victims of a past fungal epidemic that forever changed the ecology of this forest. Anybody who has driven through the extensive forest of Shenandoah National Park or Smoky Mountain National Park has seen how a generation of protection can restore the eastern hardwood forest to something that is similar to what was there before. Its not the same, not by a long shot, but maybe one day we will see frogs return to Panama and the American Chestnut return to the Appalachians.

    A special thanks to Liz Neeley for the inspiration to write this and for editing earlier drafts.

    About the Author: Karen Lips is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland, and the Director of the Graduate Program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology. Her research focuses on the ecology, evolution, and conservation of amphibians, with interests at multiple scales (including populations, communities, and ecosystems), and with special interest in how amphibians are affected by emerging infectious disease and global change. Follow on Twitter @kwren88.

  • 04/22/2013:  Tracking bird flu: US wildlife workers on the front line against deadly strains, NBC News
    (Link to the original article)


    They were once featured on the show Dirty Jobs but the wildlife experts who spend weeks each year wrestling wild birds to swab their behinds for avian flu dont mind. Theyre happy to be on the front line, keeping an eye out for infected birds that might bring new and deadly strains of influenza to the United States.

    The programs been dialed back a bit since it started in 2005, but the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Service experts are paying close attention to reports of a new and deadly strain of bird flu the H7N9 virus. Its infected 102 people in China at last count, and killed 20 of them.

  • 03/14/2013:  Officials: Emaciation cause of Tundra swans deaths, Juneau Empire
    (Link to the original article)


    Officials say the two tundra swans found dead in the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge in Juneau on New Years Eve died from emaciation.

    Alaska Wildlife Troopers sent one of the swans to be examined at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisc., and troopers received a report from the organization on Tuesday.

    They ruled the cause of death as emaciation of unknown cause, said trooper Aaron Frenzel. Emaciation is substantial weight loss and can be caused by starvation.

    Troopers initially suspected the birds may have been shot, but Frenzel says the report does not indicate they were poached. Poison was also ruled out as the cause of death.

    Troopers were alerted to the case when a man walking the refuge found the swans and reported his find to authorities.

    The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are about 100 tundra swans that visit Juneau each year on their migratory path. They are attracted to the tidal salt marshes in the 3,500-acre refuge and feed on aquatic vegetation there, according to Ryan Scott, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

    Most of the tundra swans migrating through Juneau likely breed in the Bristol Bay lowlands, although some birds from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta pass through, said Craig Ely, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Surveys Alaska Science Center.

    Ely said in a phone interview that the birds begin migrating south in September or early October, and return north in a few months later. If they were still in Juneau in January, thats really suspect, Ely said.

    It could mean they missed the migration south or were too early returning to Alaska.

    Ely said if the pair of swans were young, its possible they might have been hatched late and not strong enough to make the trek, or they could have been injured and unable to care for themselves.

  • 03/13/2013:  More Accurate, Sensitive DNA Test Allows Early Detection Of Fatal Fungus In Bats, TheChattanoogan.com
    (Link to the original article)


    A team of U.S. Forest Service scientists and partners have discovered a vital new early-warning tool for detecting the presence of a fungus that is wiping out bat populations east of the Mississippi River.

    Even after researchers studying White Nose Syndrome established that a fungus called Geomyces destructans is at the root of the devastating disease, detecting the fungus has largely depended on finding dead or dying bats.

    This month, the journal Mycologia will publish research identifying additional species of Geomyces and describing development of a highly sensitive DNA-based technique for early identification of Geomyces destructans on bats as well as in soils and on cave walls.

    The significance of the Forest Services recent research will have an immediate and direct benefit to White Nose Syndrome response at a national scale, according to Katie Gillies, imperiled species coordinator at Bat Conservation International. This will allow managers to sample soil and substrates to test for the presence of Geomyces destructans, freeing up limited surveillance funds and time. Additionally, this opens the door to examine the use of gene silencing as a control mechanism for this devastating fungus. Research like this, that directly benefits resource managers and guides us to controlling this fungus, is critically needed.

    Daniel Lindner, a research plant pathologist with the Forest Services Northern Research Station, led research that identified 35 species of Geomyces, more than doubling the number of known species. Lindner and partners used that research to develop a DNA-based detection test for Geomyces destructans that is much more sensitive and accurate than previous tests. Forest Service scientists collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin for both studies.

    At best, only five to 10 percent of fungal species on earth have been named and scientifically described, Mr. Lindner said. Developing a specific test for this fungus was difficult because we found that every sample from bats and caves contained a huge diversity of unidentified, unnamed fungi, and these were interfering with detection.

    White Nose Syndrome was first identified in Upstate New York in 2006. Since then it has spread to caves throughout the East Coast and killed millions of bats, and it continues to spread.

    White Nose Syndrome is arguably the most devastating wildlife disease weve faced, said Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Services Northern Research Station. Forest Service scientists are conducting research to halt this disease and save bats, which are so important to agriculture and forest ecosystems. Scientists identified Geomyces destructans as the cause of White Nose Syndrome in 2012. Conclusively identifying the fungus either on a bat or in soil has been difficult and time consuming because a variety of closely related Geomyces species found where bats hibernate have the potential to cause false positives using previous DNA testing. Previous tests also lacked sensitivity, making it possible to miss the fungus in some samples. The new test is 100-times more sensitive than previous tests and can detect a single spore of the fungus.

    Co-authors on the study documenting development of the new DNA-based technique for testing for Geomyces destructans included David Blehert and Laura Muller of the U.S. Geological Surveys National Wildlife Health Center, Jeffrey Lorch of the University of Wisconsin, Andrea Gargas of Symbiology LLC, and Michael OConner of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostics Lab. Co-authors on the paper examining fungi in hibernacula included Blehert, Muller, Lorch and Gargas.

    The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nations forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of our nations forests; 850 million acres including 100 million acres of urban forests where most Americans live. The mission of the Forest Services Northern Research Station is to improve peoples lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

  • 02/28/2013:  Fatal bat disease spreads to Illinois, State Journal-Register
    (Link to the original article)


    White-nose syndrome, a disease blamed for the deaths of nearly 6 million bats in eastern North America, was found in four Illinois counties this winter.

    The discoveries at sites where bats hibernate in Hardin, LaSalle, Monroe and Pope counties makes Illinois the 20th state to have confirmed the presence of the disease.

    We certainly were expecting the arrival of white-nose syndrome in Illinois, but it was quite a shock to find it at four separate sites, said Joe Kath, Illinois Department of Natural Resources endangered species program manager.

    The disease, first discovered in New York in 2006, often causes a powdery fungus to accumulate around the bats muzzle.

    It was blatantly visible, said Kath, who led DNR efforts to survey locations where bats hibernate.

    The disease causes bats to rouse early from hibernation, hungry and dehydrated from the illness, only to find no insects to feed on.

    There were just a handful of animals at the four sites, and each of the animals showed the classic signs of infection, he said.

    The disease was confirmed by samples sent to the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

    Disease starts slowly

    Scientists with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign isolated the fungal pathogen in bats from LaSalle and Monroe counties.

    The first year typically follows a pattern where there are only a handful of animals visibly affected, Kath said. In subsequent years, you see major signs of infection and major die-offs.

    In the eastern United States, bat mortality has reached 90 percent in caves where the fungus, Geomyces destructans, is found, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Illinois is home to 13 species of bats; four are listed as endangered in Illinois, and two of those, the Indiana bat and gray bat, also are federally endangered.

    Bats discovered to have the disease include the little brown bat and northern long-eared bat. Both are found statewide.

    The disease is not a threat to people, and bats co-exist with native fungi related to G. destructans without ill effects, said Jeremy Coleman, WNS coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Caves closed

    Scientists do not know exactly how the fungus arrived in North America, although it may have been accidentally transported here from Europe.

    In Illinois, caves operated by DNR have been closed since 2010. Scientists are concerned cave visitors could accidentally transport spores of the fungus from one location to another on boots or other clothing.

  • 02/15/2013:  A Bat Fungus on the March, The New York Times
    (Link to the original article)


    A deadly bat fungus has spread to three caves in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Virginia, park officials have confirmed.

    The fungus, known as white nose syndrome, has killed millions of bats in the Northeast and Midwest since it was discovered in a cave in New York State in 2006. Late last month, it was confirmed to have spread as far west as Onondaga Cave State Park in Missouri

    Meanwhile, it it is turning up in additional caves to the east as well. At Cumberland Gap, three out of 30 caves in the park tested positive for the disease, and we know that bats travel between all of the caves, so thats not good, said Carol Borneman, a ranger at the park, which straddles parts of Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Virginia.

    White nose syndrome was also recently confirmed in Kentuckys Mammoth Cave National Park.

    While scientists scramble to better understand the disease, federal and local officials are alerting spelunkers and miners to clean their shoes and clothing so as to not accidentally spread the fungus while traveling, said Ann Froschauer, a spokeswoman for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

    As for the perambulating bats themselves, theres not much park officials can do. The bats are moving it pretty quickly and efficiently on their own, and we dont have any way we can prevent that spread, Ms. Froschauer said.

    Since the fungus was found in New York in 2006, genetic tests have shown that the spores are closely related to microbes found in Europe, suggesting that the disease was imported. Many European bats seem immune to the disease even though they are carrying the spores.

    In North America, white nose syndrome has killed more than 5.5 million bats across 19 states and four Canadian provinces. The ecological consequences could prove significant: that number of bats would normally eat some 8,000 tons of insects each year, many of them pests that are harmful to agriculture and forests, scientists say.

    The fungus threatens bats in several ways, including one that seems to parallel immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome in AIDS patients, said Carol U. Meteyer, a wildlife pathologist for the United States Geological Survey.

    The fungus generally attacks when a bat is hibernating and both its body temperature and immune system are depressed. When the bat wakes in the spring, its shocked immune system goes on a rampage, destroying healthy tissue and fungus alike.

    Scientists have suggested that this is akin to the way that, after heavy doses of anti-retroviral therapy, the strengthened immune system in a human AIDS patient may over-respond to a pre-existing infection and damage healthy tissue.

    In both humans and bats, its an immune-suppressed individual who suddenly recovers their immune function, and their immune system overreacts and damages surrounding tissue as well as the fungus, Dr. Meteyer said. She added that many infected bats had tears in their wings caused by their own immune response.

    Bat mortality in caves and mines where the fungus has been present for more than a year exceeds 90 percent, scientists say. Most new cases of white nose syndrome are discovered during the winter, when the bats display symptoms of the disease like flying outside during daylight hours or are observed in caves to have fuzzy white growths around their snouts and on their wings.

    The fungus cannot survive in temperatures above around 70 degrees, but hibernating bats, whose body temperatures dip to around 50 degrees, are extremely susceptible.

    The fungus also lives in cave soil, which stays cool year round, and afflicting bats appears to be incidental to its main function, which is breaking down organic matter, scientists say. Because the fungus does not need bats to survive, it can persist in caves and mines where bats have been completely wiped out. Scientists are working against the clock to determine whether some bat populations stand a better chance of avoiding the fungus by hibernating in parts of caves where spore concentrations are lower.

    In the meantime, wildlife officials are advocating that more species of bats be considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

    White nose syndrome is here, and its moving really quickly, Ms. Froschauer said. Well hope that it wont get any further west, but it probably will.

  • 02/15/2013:  White-nose syndrome confirmed in bat at Onondaga Cave inCrawford County, The Rolla Daily News
    (Link to the original article)


    Missouri State Parks has received confirmation that a bat found in the entrance of Onondaga Cave at Onondaga Cave State Park in Crawford County has tested positive with white-nose syndrome.

    The disease spreads mainly through bat-to-bat contact and has not been found to infect people, pets or livestock but is harmful or lethal to hibernating bats.

    The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome may be inadvertently carried between caves by humans through clothing and equipment.

    The U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center confirmed the bat had the disease described as a white fungus, or Geomyces destructans, which is typically found on the faces and wings of infected bats.

    Education is an important aspect of the overall effort to manage white-nose syndrome.

    In 2010, Missouri State Parks staff began educating and screening visitors before each cave tour to help minimize risks to bats.

    While the disease is mainly transmitted bat to bat, scientists believe that the fungus can be carried on clothing, footwear and caving gear. Therefore, staff will require visitors to wear only clothing and bring equipment that has not been in another cave before.

    In addition, staff took action to protect the bats from disturbance while hibernating in caves and adjusted the touring season to avoid disturbing the bats in fall and spring when they are gathering for, or preparing to leave, hibernation.

    Nearly 20,000 people visit Onondaga Cave every year. Staff will continue to provide information and require additional measures for visitors to follow both before and after a cave tour when the cave opens for the tour season to help reduce the risk of cave-to-cave transmission of the fungus.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that white-nose syndrome has killed at least 5.5 million cave-dwelling bats since the disease was first detected in New York in 2006. Signs of the disease have spread to 21 states and the disease has been confirmed in 19 states and four Canadian provinces.

    Signs of the disease were first discovered in Missouri in 2010. Today, signs of the disease or the fungus have been confirmed in 15 bats from caves in Pike, Shannon, Lincoln, Perry, Washington and now Crawford counties.

  • 01/23/2013:  Erratic bat behavior at Great Smoky park may be linked to lethal syndrome, The Washington Post
    (Link to the original article)


    In the dead of winter, bats should be in a deep sleep. But at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, theyre out and about, flying erratically in many cases, acting crazy.

    Out of nowhere, theyve launched their mouse-sized bodies at unsuspecting visitors, forcing people to shoo them off with fishing poles, walking sticks and their bare hands. At least one bat flew smack into a trail walkers forehead.

    Officials say they probably havent gone mad from rabies, something humans should fear. More than likely, its another troubling sign: Large groups of bats in the nations most popular national park appear to be stricken with white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus thats wiping out a variety of bat species up and down the East Coast, a possible extinction event, some biologists say.

    We cant say 100 percent that its white-nose, but it most likely is, said Bill Stiver, the supervisor of wildlife biologists at the park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. He said biologists are likely to confirm it when they venture into the caves in mid-February for a yearly census. Our gut feeling is the disease is starting to manifest itself in the caves.

    At last count, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a year ago, between 5 million and 7 million bats were estimated to have died from white-nose since it was first discovered in 2006 in a cave outside Albany, N.Y. Thats enough bats to have eaten 8,000 tons of insects per year, many of which devour food crops. Like bees, bats pollinate plants, and in caves, their guano provides nutrients that sustain life.

    At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky last week, there was more bad news. Officials confirmed that a northern long-eared bat from one of the parks caves was infected, another sign that the disease is spreading to the Southeast.

    Last March, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced its presence in a cave complex in Jackson County, a cradle for millions of endangered gray bats. The fungus has been confirmed through testing in 19 states, and detected without confirmation in two other states, officials said.

    Little brown bats have been especially hard hit. A survey of 42 sites in 2010 found that the population fell from 385,000 before the disease to 30,000 at that time, a 90 percent decline. The northern bats population was in free fall, going from about 1,700 to 30, a 98 percent plummet.

    White-nose, linked to a cold-loving fungus known as Geomyces destructans that strikes during the October to April hibernation, was first detected in the Smoky Mountains caves in 2010 but not on bats, like having the cold virus but not the cold, Stiver said. Two years later, officials started seeing the disease on a few bats. Now they fear it is full blown.

    At Mammoth Cave National Park, until now thought to be clean, the diseased bat was found in the Long Cave. Instead of closing off the attraction, officials are requiring visitors to wipe their feet on decontamination mats to avoid spreading fungus spores to other areas.

    Steven Thomas, leader of the National Park Service regional monitoring program, was poking around in the caves when he made the discovery. I saw a white spot on a bat, he said. It was euthanized Jan. 4, and a lab test came back positive.

    Federal agencies and a host of nonprofit groups have waged an uphill battle against the fungus, in laboratories studying ways to kill it, and building fake caves so bats can avoid it. But a grim reality is setting in.

    The common little brown bat might all but disappear in the East and possibly the Midwest if the fungus continues to spread. They also fear for the northern long-eared bat and the Indiana bat.

    A white-nose death is grisly. The fungus hits when the bats breathing is low and their tiny heartbeats are at an ebb in hibernation.

    Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Institutes of Health theorize that the bats die when they awaken from hibernation, and their reactivated immune systems go overboard in an attempt to eliminate the intruding disease, destroying the illness but also tissue bats need to live. Ligaments in the wings of bats appear scorched.

    There was positive news in 2011 that a few little brown bats in the Northeast were resisting the disease, hanging on to existence by a tiny little fingernail, a Vermont conservationist said. But in the past two years the disease spread south and as far west as Iowa.

    Days before Christmas, reports of erratic behavior started coming in to the ranger station at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which boasts 275 million visitors a year. As a precaution, officials warned visitors to beware of bats because of the risk of rabies. Bat teeth are so small that people might not know they had been bitten.

    But Stiver said the behavior is consistent with white-nose, which was most lethal in the Northeast after three years. And what do you know, its been here three years, Stiver said.

    There are 11 species of bats in the 500,000-acre park, representing a fifth of all its mammals. Bats that fly around in the winter are doomed, even when they dont have white-nose. They use up fat reserves stored for the winter and starve because the bugs they eat are hibernating.

    At this point, bats are in a deadly endurance test, Stiver said. Some might develop an immunity to the fungus, as have bats in Europe, from where Geomyces destructans was likely brought, wildlife biologists say.

    Otherwise, the observation of Mylea Bayless, conservation programs manager for Bat Conservation International in Austin, might prove correct.

    Were watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons for this group of mammals, she said.

  • 01/11/2013:  DNR asks public to clean bird feeders, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
    (Link to the original article)


    We know its important to clean out the refrigerator once in a while, but dont forget the bird feeder too.

    State wildlife officials have confirmed reports of the death or sickness of small numbers of three bird species linked to salmonella poisonings in southern Wisconsin.

    Thats prompted the Department of Natural Resources to ask the public to clean backyard bird feeders and keep an eye out for dead birds, since salmonella not only kills birds, but affects humans as well.

    The warmer temperatures are producing ideal conditions for bacteria in bird feeders, the DNR says. Salmonella from the feces of birds is known to lurk in dirty bird feeders.

    The DNR said that the deaths of a small number of pine siskins in Dane County have been tied to salmonella. Sick goldfinches and sparrows have been reported in Dodge and Crawford counties, as well.

    The birds might be more vulnerable due to stress from their migration.

    The National Wildlife Health Center said that salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of birds and are passed through feces. The salmonella strain found in birds can also be passed to humans.

    Heres some recommendations from the DNR:

    -Clean bird feeders and bird baths regularly with a 10% bleach solution.

    -Throw away empty seed hulls near feeders.

    -Consider moving feeders occasionally to avoid a buildup of waste in one area.

    -Replace water in a bird bath every two or three days

    -Wear disposable gloves when cleaning a birdbath and bird feeder.

  • 12/18/2012:  White Nose Syndrome In Bats Could Yield Clues About AIDS, POPSCI
    (Link to the original article)


    The millions of bats succumbing to a deadly fungal infection across the country will leave massive ecological holes in their wake--prime predators of insects are disappearing, for one, and cave flora and fauna that depend on bats could be in danger of collapsing. But research on the animals immune responses could have one silver lining: helping AIDS patients.

    Biologists think white nose syndrome kills bats in a couple of ways--first, by covering their faces and wings in a powdery white fungus that makes them itchy, causing them to wake up from hibernation and burn their precious fat reserves. Second, it damages the animals sensitive wing membranes, which causes system-wide injury that is still not totally understood. That also hurts their ability to fly.

    Bat immune systems try to fight off the fungus, and apparently the system goes into overdrive when hibernating bats wake up. This is called immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, or IRIS. It has never been seen before in the wild, and has only been observed once--in AIDS patients.

    In people with AIDS, the immune system goes into overdrive after antiretroviral drugs suppress HIV infection and restore a person's health. The immune system then tries to fight off any other underlying infection. In bats, this happens after the animals wake from their winter torpor. During that stage, the immune system is suppressed, which allows the Geomyces destructans fungus to colonize the bats' skin in the first place. In both cases, the awakened immune system goes out of control and attacks healthy tissue as well as infected cells.

    Carol Meteyer, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, noticed the phenomenon while studying sick bats in Wisconsin. Its cellular suicide. The immune system comes out in a huge wave, going out to those areas of infection and kills everything," she told the Washington Post. Now she and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health aim to study the similarity between bat and human immune systems, potentially learning how IRIS works in people.

    The hypothesis about bat IRIS was published last month in the journal Virulence.

  • 12/17/2012:  Bad News for Bats: Deadly Fungus Persists in Caves, Science Daily
    (Link to the original article)


    Researchers have found that the organism that causes deadly white-nose syndrome persists in caves long after it has killed the bats in those caves.

    A study just published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology shows that the fungus can survive in soil for months, even years, after the bats have departed.

    This is not good news for the bat population, says lead author Jeff Lorch, a research associate in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We have found that caves and mines, which remain cool year-round, can serve as reservoirs for the fungus, so bats entering previously infected sites may contract white-nose syndrome from that environment. This represents an important and adverse transmission route."

    "This certainly presents additional challenges," adds David Blehert, a microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, who also led the study. "It's important that we have completed this foundational work that further implicates the environment in the ecology of this infectious disease. We can now collectively move forward to address this problem."

    The fungus cannot grow at warm temperatures, so scientists have long wondered how it survived over the summer. The new study sheds light on this mystery, proving that the fungus can survive over the summer in the cool soil of the caves and mines where bats hibernate.

    The researchers analyzed soil samples collected during the summer (when bats were absent) from 14 caves and mines in which bats had been observed with white-nose syndrome, and they found viable samples of the fungus, called Geomyces destructans.

    White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in at least seven species since it was first detected in North America in 2006. From an epicenter in New York state, it has spread into New England, West Virginia, Missouri and Canada north of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The disease has not yet appeared in Wisconsin.

    Although the new study did not assess how effectively the soil-borne samples could cause disease in bats, they probably can, says Lorch. "Other studies, along with some of our current work, show that isolates we have found in North America are genetically identical, so there is no reason to think the fungus found in the soil would be less virulent. However, it would require additional experimentation to confirm that."

    The study reveals the challenges involved in repopulating caves after bats have been wiped out by white-nose syndrome, says Lorch. "A lot of people were wondering whether the bats would eventually recolonize caves they had disappeared from due to the disease. It now appears as though this may be a challenge for susceptible bats because the pathogen is living in the soil."

    The results also support current disease management recommendations to limit access to caves, Lorch adds. "Some of the states have put restrictions on entry into caves or require those entering to decontaminate gear and clothing to prevent transmission. We cultured the fungus from 200 milligrams of soil, and that amount could easily be transported in the tread of a boot. So even if a cave does not have bats, there is still a risk that people going in could spread the fungus."

    Based upon analysis of samples from 55 bat hibernation sites, the scientists also found that the fungus was present in caves and mines where the dise