February 14, 2020

MDIFW News - MDIFW, USDA Wildlife Services, City of Bath Working Together On Rabies Issue In Bath

For Immediate Release: February 12, 2020

AUGUSTA, Maine -- The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is working with the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the City of Bath on an integrative approach to address important human health and safety concerns surrounding rabies. A focused, localized trapping effort is proposed as a management strategy to reduce wild animal population densities in the area. Details of the plan are being finalized, and there will be a public informational meeting to discuss the plan once it is complete, likely within the next two weeks.

Rabies is a naturally occurring disease that affects mammals, including people, primarily through a bite. Rabies is fatal if left untreated, but vaccines are extremely effective when medical treatment is sought soon after being exposed to an infected animal. Certain species of wildlife are more susceptible to rabies and have high tolerance for living in close proximity to people, such as raccoons, skunks and foxes. Bats are also considered high risk for rabies because they are sometimes found in homes, and although a small percent carry rabies, their bite marks are small and easily overlooked. Trends in the number of rabies-positive animals has been similar over the last 10 years in Maine. The risk of encountering an animal with rabies is still very low.

However, some areas of mid-coast Maine have been particularly hard hit by rabies in recent years. In 2019, the City of Bath, with a population of over 8,000 people, received 72 suspicious animal calls, 26 sick animals were dispatched by officers or citizens, and 16 animals tested positive for rabies. Of the 18 fox attacks on people or pets, 11 attacks resulted in a person being bitten or scratched. The unusual number of aggressive fox attacks on people and domestic pets has raised human health and safety concerns, and prompted the proposed focused trapping effort. Sick animals and attacks continue to be reported in 2020 in Bath and the nearby communities of West Bath and Phippsburg.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why can't the government vaccinate wildlife for rabies?

The short answer is that it is ineffective and costly to spot treat high rabies areas. USDA Wildlife Services rabies program in Maine follows the guidelines set by the National Rabies Management Program. The goal of the program is to prevent the further spread of wildlife rabies and eventually eliminate terrestrial rabies in the United States through an integrated program that involves the use of oral rabies vaccination targeting wild animals. The approximate cost for the project in Maine is $500,000, and >80% of that cost is associated with the oral rabies vaccination (ORV) baits used to treat raccoons and other wildlife. Wildlife species account for >90% of all reported cases in the U.S. each year. The costs associated with detection, prevention and control of rabies conservatively exceed $600 million annually in the U.S. Thus, the cost-benefit ratio associated with ORV for wildlife is significant. The greatest economic savings per year (approximately $58 million) comes from preventing spread and keeping rabies from gaining a bigger geographic footprint.

Rabies elimination is a long-term goal that will include current and novel strategies but will require sustainable resources in order to succeed. Currently, the distribution of rabies in Maine is primarily in the central and southern areas of the state but there are cases in some areas of northern Maine as well (primarily Aroostook County). Before management efforts are focused in the southern part of the state, we need to eliminate the risk of further rabies spread in northern Maine. Maine is one of 14 eastern states in which USDA conducts rabies management activities. Each year, over 8 million vaccine baits are distributed in the Eastern U.S. Our goal is to first shut the door on high risk spread corridors throughout the eastern U.S., including the area we are currently working in Maine, before we can start to incrementally eliminate rabies at the local level.

It currently is cost-prohibitive and logistically not feasible to drop ORV baits statewide in Maine or any other state. The targeted area for ORV in Maine has not changed significantly from last year and is located in northeastern ME, along a portion of the border with New Brunswick. We know that smaller, more focused ORV projects (e.g. at the town scale) fail to get the desired management result because rabies continues to circulate in the surrounding untreated areas and may quickly spread back into the treated areas infecting animals that did not pick up a vaccine bait.

Why has rabies increased so suddenly in gray foxes in Bath?

The spread of disease in an animal population increases as that animal population density increases. In an area like Bath, where it is not possible to hunt or trap, some animal populations have grown unchecked, and a disease like rabies can spread rapidly through a high-density population. Rabies is a cyclical disease and it is not uncommon to observe localized outbreaks in a specific area for a period of time that eventually decline.

Has trapping in a small, populated area been done before? Yes. Focused trapping efforts are utilized for a variety of reasons, including public health reasons and for endangered species protection, among other reasons. The operations planned in Bath are not specifically for rabies control. Wildlife Services is a program within the U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and provides Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts that threaten the Nations agricultural, natural, and property resources and human health and safety. Wildlife Services uses and recommends an integrated wildlife damage management approach, including nonlethal techniques, in addressing problems and conflict involving wildlife.

The program for Bath is intended to reduce local animal densities for human health and safety. This may have an effect on the rabies issue as the animals that will be removed are those that are common raccoon rabies vectors.

What kind of traps are being proposed to be used in the Bath area and how long would trapping last?

Cage traps are being proposed, which would allow animals other than racoon, skunk and fox to be released. Traps would be checked a minimum of 2 times each day and not set during extreme cold temperatures. The trapping effort will be completed by the end of March to prevent orphaning young born in April.

How many animals will be killed?

The number of animals caught will depend on the number of traps set, the length of time they are set, and the weather. Animals are not caught in every trap set every night. Raccoon, skunk, red fox, and grey fox caught in traps will be euthanized and tested for rabies. There is no way to test for rabies on live animals because the test requires brain tissue.

How can people protect themselves and pets from rabies?

-Vaccinate both indoor and outdoor pets and livestock.

-Do not approach, handle, or feed wildlife; or unknown domestic animals.

-Do not move wildlife from one area to another, as this can spread rabies.

-Feed pets indoors.

-Secure trash and compost.

-Consider removing bird feeders and planting native plants to help the birds, without attracting rodents and other creatures that often lead to conflicts.

-Seal areas around your home where animals might take up residence or hide, like crawl spaces under sheds or decks.

-If confronted with an aggressive or sick animal, make noise and use whatever you can to protect yourself.

-Report sick, stray, or strange-acting animals.

-Contact a healthcare provider right away, if bitten or scratched by an animal.

-If you wake up to a bat in the house, call Maine CDC at 1-800-821-5821

Learn More on Living with Wildlife:

https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/wildlife-human-issues/living-with-wildlife/index.html

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