BEEKMANTOWN — A trial conducted locally could help determine the future direction of rabies vaccinations for wild animals across the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division has been trapping, analyzing, tagging and releasing raccoons and other wildlife across Clinton County over the past two weeks.
Wildlife Services will begin dropping baits by airplane in mid-August, hopefully with a new vaccine that has shown positive results in Canada but has not yet been approved for regular use in the United States.
“The old vaccine had about a 30 percent success rate (for animals finding and consuming the baits),” said Dan Morgan, the USDA wildlife biologist who is supervising the Clinton County project.
“That’s good enough to keep rabies from continuing to spread, but we need a larger percentage” to move toward eliminating raccoon rabies in the wild.
In Canada, this new vaccine has had a 70 percent success rate, he noted.
The new bait is a much sweeter-smelling treat for the animals and is less attractive to dogs and other animals, he added.
Morgan said he is optimistic that federal approval will be granted to use the new vaccine in the upcoming bait drop.
Working in two large sections of Clinton County, one north of Plattsburgh and the other south
of the city, technicians have trapped more than 400 raccoons, along with a selection of other mammals, including skunks, martins, red foxes and young coyotes.
“We return the animals to the location where they were captured,” Morgan said.
Younger animals are able to reunite with their parents relatively easily when returned to the wild, he noted.
Technicians anesthetize the animals and then weigh them, remove a tooth for aging and take a blood sample to look for the presence of rabies antibodies. The animals are then returned to their temporary cages, where they will wake within 15 to 20 minutes and await their return to the wild.
“The field studies (now being conducted) will help us develop a baseline for data,” Morgan said.
He and his team will return to the area in September to recapture animals to determine how effective the bait drop had been by testing for antibodies again, he explained.
The new vaccine was used in a West Virginia bait drop last fall and will also be employed in pilot studies in Vermont, New Hampshire and Ohio this year.
One raccoon Morgan that analyzed recently was a lactating female that he estimated to be about 6 or 7 years old. He decided against removing the animal’s tooth because she was missing quite a few already, showing that she has lived a fairly long time for a wild raccoon.
“The local raccoon population seems quite healthy,” he said of the animals he and his team have captured. “We have not seen any illnesses (such as rabies, distemper and mange) and have not had to euthanize any animals (because of disease).”
The rabies-vaccination program has been held in Clinton County for the last several years and has proven successful, with very few positive rabies cases over that time period.
Still, Morgan stresses the need for people to avoid wild animals at all times. Don’t feed wildlife, he said, and never move a wild animal from one area to another.
If residents are having problems with a creature on their property, they should call a nuisance-animal professional for assistance, he noted. The local health department or Department of Environmental Conservation office can provide contact information.
Also, residents should make sure their pets’ vaccinations are up to date, he emphasized.
Morgan and his team will also spend some time trapping raccoons in Essex County to assess the population there.
Traps are clearly identified by U.S. Fish and Wildlife stickers and should not be touched.
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