March 29, 2006

Lice Infestations Plague Alaska Wolf Packs

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Scientists working to eradicate infestations of lice in packs of interior wolves said it might be a losing battle.

"We already know lice is part of Interior Alaska now, but can it be managed? That's the question," said Craig Gardner, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. "I think it's going to be tough."

Canine lice have been spreading in Alaska's wolf population since first being found on wolves on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1980s. They were probably passed from sled dogs and don't infest human hair.

The lice showed up on wolves in the Matanuska Valley in the late 1990s and last year, biologists confirmed the first case in wolves north of the Alaska Range.

"It was speculated it wouldn't get past the Alaska Range because wolves wouldn't be able to survive because it would be too cold," said state wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen. "We've had some wolves with hair loss and you could see lice on them but they certainly aren't dying."

The resilient pests are ruining the quality of the animals' coats and hurting business for trappers. Wolves damage their own fur by rubbing and scratching the bites, bringing the value of their pelts down.

"Lousy wolves," are worthless to trappers because the fur is no good, said Alaska Trappers Association president Randy Zarnke. Most of the wolves caught on the Kenai Peninsula are unusable, Zarnke said.

When the Department of Fish and Game announced last year that lice had been found on a wolf trapped in the Alaska Range 50 miles south of Fairbanks, the association sent a letter to Gov. Frank Murkowski urging him to eradicate lice in Alaska wolves.

The Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks has had small-scale success treating lice-infested wolves in the Alaska Range.

Last April, biologists captured and treated the lice-ridden pack of five wolves by injecting them with a cattle dewormer commonly used in dogs.

The goal was to keep the wolves free of lice during denning so the pups would be clean, said Gardner. The biologists also put radio collars on the five wolves.

After a litter of seven pups was born in May, biologists continued treating the pack by dropping beaver and lynx meat treated with the medicine from planes. They repeated the drop three times over several weeks.

When biologists recaptured four of the pups in November, tests showed they were lice free. Two additional pups from the pack caught by trappers were also lice free.

"We know treatment has worked for at least a year now," Gardner said.

Gardner suspects at least one more pack in the Alaska Range has lice. He wants to fit radio collars on wolves in those packs so they can monitor and treat them with medicine-filled baits.

"We're just trying to see if we can manage lice and keep the wolves' pelts looking good going into winter so trappers will want to trap them," said Beckmen.

Cleansing lice from a pack of wolves doesn't mean it will stay louse free. Young wolves break off from their packs each year and join other groups of roving lupines.

"Let's say a wolf disperses and gets with a pack that was treated and is clean. Boom, you've got lice again," said Gardner.


Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com