Mar 11, 2001
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Deer population may face anthrax outbreak

By Ralph Winingham, San Antonio Express-News


The debris and devastation left in the wake of last week's flooding are not the only potential menace facing wildlife throughout the Hill Country and parts of South Texas.

Some Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials are expressing concerns about the possibility — with the emphasis on possible — of outbreaks of anthrax this summer in the wild deer population.

"This is developing into the same situation that I saw in 1987-88 when I observed the first major outbreak of anthrax in this area," said Rick Taylor, field biologist at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's Uvalde office. "If we have an extended dry period following this period of heavy rains, we need to prepare ourselves for that possibility."

Taylor stressed that even if the right conditions occur, he did not expect to see an anthrax outbreak as extensive as the one last summer that killed hundreds of white-tailed deer and some domestic livestock.

Anthrax bacteria have been a fact of life and death for Texas wildlife since the time buffalo roamed the vast grasslands of the state.

Taylor said the spores can resurface whenever the region experiences an extended wet period followed by drought conditions, or when a drought is broken by heavy rainfall.

Animals grazing close to the ground and inhaling the bacteria spores normally spread anthrax. Inhaling the spores causes an animal to develop a fever and become weak, then die from blood loss. The bacterium reduces the blood-clotting ability of any infected animal.

Animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, exotic and domestic deer, and horses are susceptible to the disease. By the time an animal displays signs of anthrax, which may involve staggering, trembling, convulsions or bleeding from the body openings, death usually follows quickly.

Biting insects that feed on the dead or dying animals can spread the disease, although such transfers are uncommon.

The outbreak in the summer of 2001 covered many parts of the state and was observed in some areas where it had never been seen before, in addition to lasting longer than expected. Officials said the 2001 outbreak was the worst recorded in the past 40 years.

Jerry Cooke, branch chief for game mammals at the TP&W headquarters in Austin, believes there is a short window of opportunity this summer for conditions to allow the possibility of anthrax outbreaks.

"It is really late in the year for this to happen," Cooke said. "As soon as we have some cool night temperatures, the conditions are not conducive for spore development."

Both Cooke and Taylor emphasized that even if anthrax outbreaks occur, the incidents will be much more isolated than last year.

"The deer population is also down, so any impact should even be less than last year," Cooke said.

As they did in 2001, the officials recommend that anyone finding a deer carcass or skeleton this fall refrain from handling the remains, as there is a chance of human infestation from spores on the skull, bones or hide of animals that have died from anthrax.

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