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Trial to vaccinate deer against bovine TB kicks off in Alpena County

David Kenyon
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Michigan researchers are testing out an "emerging tool," they hope could eradicate an infectious disease spread by deer.

A field trial is underway in Alpena County to see if vaccinating wild deer is a viable option for managing bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

bTB is an infectious, respiratory disease that affects people and animals. And while cases are declining in the U.S., the disease has stuck around in deer populations in northeast Michigan.

Researchers are now monitoring 15 sites in the Alpena area, to see if deer take the bait — and consume an oral vaccine, hidden in cubes with shredded alfalfa hay and molasses.

Emily Sewell, a wildlife health specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the team is testing out a new tool that could potentially turn the tide against bTB, which has held steady in deer populations.

 "We need to really understand different tools for managing TB because what we have available has really reached maximum capacity," Sewell said. "The prevalence of disease has stabilized over the last ten years."

Sewell said the deployment of vaccines began in late February and will continue into April on a staggered basis. Deer will be harvested in the site area after about 8 weeks to assess vaccine uptake rates.

She said researchers do not have a target number of deer they're hoping to vaccinate, but the state will use the trial to see if this system could be implemented on a larger scale.

"Success for this field trial is uptake of the oral vaccine by deer at the trial sites and detection of vaccination when deer are sampled later," Sewell said.

Out of more than 16,000 deer that were tested in 2022, 28 were positive for the disease. The state will be releasing the 2023 testing results in the next few weeks.

The bacteria responsible for bovine TB, Mycobacterium bovis, contributes to less than 2% of TB cases in Americans every year.

For more information about bovine TB, visit the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development page on the disease.

In the interest of transparency, the Michigan DNR is a financial supporter of WCMU.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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