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Lice Discovered on Tanana Flats Wolves

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 15, 2005

Lice have been discovered on several wolves trapped in the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks in what appears to be the spread of a problem that has infected wolves on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Matanuska Valley and the Copper Basin.

It's the first time lice have been confirmed in wolves north of the Alaska Range, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

"We were kind of under the impression it was moving through the state but this is the first time we've seen it up here," ADF&G information officer Cathie Harms said.

Lice were first identified on wolves on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1980s and was thought to have been transmitted to wolves from domestic dogs.

Since then, lice have appeared on coyotes and wolves in the Matanuska Valley in the mid-1990s and last year were found on wolves near Glennallen. In both the Kenai and Palmer areas, state wildlife biologists captured and medicated dozens of wolves in the affected areas in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

While Fairbanks area trappers have reported hair loss among wolves in the Interior for several years and biologists have submitted samples to diagnostic laboratories, all tests for lice had been negative prior to last week's positive result.

How lice ended up on the Tanana Flats remains in question. But chances are it was introduced by other wolves, Harms said, though the lice could have come from coyotes or dogs.

"There is a great deal of interchange between wolf packs," she noted. "There's no reason to believe they wouldn't have been exchanged by wolves."

There have been cases documented where dispersing wolves have traveled more than 500 miles from the Kenai Peninsula to the Minto Flats north of Fairbanks, Harms said.

The good news is that it doesn't appear the parasite is killing wolves and they seem to be recovering from it over time, according to wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen.

All six wolves diagnosed with lice came from the same pack over the past two years, she said. Three wolves caught last year were infested with the parasite and the trapper brought in three more this year that were infected, Beckmen said.

While the wolves had damaged fur, they didn't have any wounds or odor, symptoms that have been seen in other wolves with the parasite, she said. It appeared the wolves were in the process of growing their fur back.

"What this goes to show is wolves can live with this and can recover," Beckmen said, noting that a technician at ADF&G in Fairbanks trapped a wolf last year that had been treated for lice in the Matanuska Valley several years ago and that wolf had a nice coat.

The lice in Tanana Flats wolves was discovered after Beckmen heard about several wolves that had been shot as part of a state-sponsored predator control program in Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska. The wolves had hair problems but no signs of lice, symptoms similar to some Beckmen had seen in some wolves a Tanana Flats trapper had brought in a year ago.

She saved the hides for future tests. It wasn't until she heard about the wolves in Unit 16B that she requested a microscopic examination by state veterinary pathologist Dr. Kathy Burek.

The presence of lice was confirmed March 10 when Burek found lice egg cases and adult lice on the hides of the Tanana Flats wolves.

Longtime Fairbanks wolf trapper Pete Buist, who sits on the state Board of Game, was troubled to hear that lice were found in wolves on the Tanana Flats. Buist has trapped on the flats for years and, though he has caught wolves with fur problems, he's never noticed signs of lice.

"That's not a good thing," Buist said. "(Lice) is a really bad problem."

So far, though, it doesn't appear the problem is widespread. A trapper in the drainage next to where the infected wolves were caught didn't notice any problems with the wolves he trapped, Beckmen noted.

Fairbanks fur tanner Al Barrette said he hasn't seen any evidence of wolves with lice showing up at his shop.

"This is one of the better years I've seen for quality of wolves," said Barrette, who owns Fairbanks Fur Tannery.

If lice do spread through the Interior's wolf population, it would be bad news for wolf trappers, who barely make enough money to constitute trapping as it is, Barrette said.

"The fur value is gone," he said of lice-infested wolves. "Hair quality is everything."

As president of the Alaska Trappers Association at the time, Buist opposed the state's decision to relocate wolves from the Tok area to the Kenai Peninsula several years ago as part of a recovery plan for the Fortymile Caribou Herd.

It was known at the time that the Kenai wolves were infested with lice and that some of the Fortymile wolves would likely try to make their way home, which turned out to be the case when one of the relocated wolves was caught in the Nelchina Basin, not far from Glennallen.

Judging from what she's seen, Beckmen said it could be that some adult wolves carry lice without having any problems, but the offspring they infect with the parasite don't have an immunity to it. The only wolves she's seen with lice were young ones, she said.

"It may be that certain lineages are predisposed to get it or it may be something to do with age," Beckmen said. "I think the younger wolves are more susceptible to it."

There's also a chance the wolves have picked the lice up from dogs. The pack in question is not far from Fairbanks.

Coyotes are another carrier of lice, she said. Beckmen has sent some coyote samples in to be tested for lice after confirming the presence of lice in the wolves.

News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at tmowry@newsminer.com or 459-7587.


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