Updated 10/16/12 –
“The introduction and spread of wolves in the United States will one day – not now – be considered a disaster in wildlife conservation with nothing to celebrate…. This is not merely a breakdown in conventional wildlife management, it is a breakdown in governance.”
– Dr. Valerius Geist – Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary.
The public health risks associated with the recolonization of wolves across much of the landscape of America could prove catastrophic. Although wolves are known to carry at least 50 different parasites and dozens of diseases that are transmissible to other animals including humans, this post will focus on one specific disease.
Dr. Valerius Geist is a specialist on the biology, behavior, and social dynamics of large North American mammals (elk, moose, bighorn sheep and other wild ungulates). The following are excerpts from a talk given by Dr. Geist at the Boone and Crockett Club on MAY 24, 2011 focusing on the subject of hydatid (parasitic tape worm) disease.
My e-mails pertaining to hydatid disease in Idaho have been met with deafening silence, except from Finland where retired moose and wolf biologist Kaarlo Nygren wrote back in response to my suggestion that we are seeing at best the tip of the iceberg: “Thank You, Val! The iceberg is there and Titanic is heading to it with people dancing on its decks”. (His words, not mine.)
But then Finland has had historically tragic experiences with wolves and hydatid disease. As I informed you, it was Fins that marshaled army helicopters and sub-machine gunners to deal with the spreaders of hydatid disease. It was Fins that translated Will Graves 2007 book “Wolves in Russia. Anxiety through the Ages” which I had edited and found a publisher for. Moreover, they upgraded the book with additional Russian material and published it again as a second edition.
It was Fins that publicized my observations how wolves target alternative prey, humans included, which I first reported on in a Wildlife Society symposium in Madison on September 27th 2005, and which I published as Appendix B in Will Graves book. They labeled the stepwise progression form exploration to attack as “Seven Steps to Heaven”. Nice humor. Moreover, the same progression was discovered six years earlier in coyotes stalking children in urban parks by professors Rex Baker and Bob Timm.
Fins are sensitized to wolves and hydatid disease and the heavy-handed machinations by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels to make Fins accept wolf-conservation-legislation built, alas, on false premises. I am well aware that this raised deep resentment in the country side, and may have been a factor in the surprising rise and recent electoral victory of the conservative, anti-EU party. My e-mail suggest similar sentiments in our west [Idaho, Montana, Wyoming].
The introduction and spread of wolves in the United States will one day – not now – be considered a disaster in wildlife conservation with nothing to celebrate. We shall eventually learn what we have not learned from history, namely, that wolves and settled landscapes are not compatible.
Here is the primary problem: Wolves, probably well-infected with dog tape worm (Echinococcus granulosus) are hunting and killing elk and deer close to and with in hamlets and suburbs and defecating on lawns, driveways and school grounds in Idaho and Montana.
Now, if nothing else but this were known, than it is an utterly unacceptable situation as these visiting wolves will almost certainly contaminate the hamlet, suburb or school ground with hydatid disease. Secondly, this sets up the beginning of habituation and the targeting of people by wolves, children being the most likely potential victims.
In short – if wolves visit residential areas, we have an intolerable breakdown of management at hand with very serious medical implication for people. This is not merely a breakdown in conventional wildlife management, it is a breakdown in governance.
However, we do know more than this! Apparently, a very brave and responsible citizen called a public meeting to announce the existence of the disease, a first operation on a lady who had most of the liver removed due to multiple cysts at a cost of apparently $63,000, as well as others with cysts in their liver. We shall find out more soon.
The wolf feces on lawns and driveways is likely to contain large amounts of tiny, microscopic eggs, hydatid eggs, which can be spread and enter homes carried on foot wear, carried by tires from the drive ways into the family garage, or carried by domestic dogs that roll on wolf feces into houses where petting the dog transfers the eggs to hands. Unwashed hands touching food, or kids chewing fingernails etc can carry the eggs into the mouth. Eggs mingling with house dust can also wind up inside persons, especially toddlers crawling on the floor and putting their hands into their mouths.
The pathway of hydatid eggs entering the house via ranch dogs feeding on infected deer and elk offal, developing adult tape worms in their gut and spreading infective feces, as I described earlier (Montana Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council, on April 27th 2010), may or may not have happened. However, any dog, be it a ranch or a hunter’s town dog rolling in wolf feces, is a serious threat to the family.
I will not bore you with describing the progress of that disease. It’s dreadful! Apparently some state biologists have been downplaying this disease. I ask you not to fall into that trap! Also, the cost of this disease, in your country will be born by the affected family, victims of the breakdown in governance that we are witness to.
The main reason that hydatid disease has not been prevalent to the north of Idaho in British Columbia is that trappers have continued to remove wolves at a fairly high rate, aided by predator control officers, and an open season for all hunters on wolves. There are some 900 registered trappers in BC and they hold contests as to who can kill the most wolves. The 2010 winner took first prize with 30! Second prize was responsible for 29!
Similarly in Alberta there is no limit on wolves for trappers and hunters – and wolves are still spreading causing consternation in the ranching community. However, we have no wolves hunting in suburbs, hamlets or cities – as hunters alone would quickly shoot any wolf bold or sick enough to show itself.
In my earlier presentations I have been diplomatic trying to point out that my US colleagues have not explored in the professional literature the precise conditions under which hydatid disease is most prevalent as well as highly dangerous. Reciting that the disease is rare among patients of big urban hospitals does not reflect on the prevalence of the disease!
I understand that Idaho has passed emergency legislation in the form of bill H343. It is time to use it. Similar legislation failed to pass in Montana. Secondly, to stop this wildlife management disaster and failure of governance the wolves have to come off the endangered species list, and there is legislation to that effect tied up in committee both in the congress and in the senate.
What can we do as a club? Our position has to be that, based on historical information, wolves do not belong into settled landscapes and legislation to that effect counters the public good. Secondly, we need to be adamant that wolves entering settlements need to be destroyed.
Sincerely, Val Geist
Of course Professor Geist was met by a howl of protest over his “anti-wolf” comments from the pro-wolf rewilding lobby and their lackeys in our State wildlife agencies, and in our State and Federal government. As a distinguished scientist, author, and lecturer, Professor Geist is eminently well qualified to comment on these issues. His recommendations regarding how to handle game suspected of being contaminated with hydatid disease are printed in Canadian hunting manuals and trapping regulations. [See my post, “LIVING WITH WOLVES – “What to Expect Next”].
Dr. Geist maintains that those who play down the significance of hydatid disease in the ungulate/wolf predator prey cycle, “ignore numerous research in other states, provinces and countries, indicating that the increase in parasite infestation inevitably results in predators killing far more of the prey species.” Hydatid cysts can grow inside a human for 10 to 15 years without causing symptoms. Eventually some of them may become painful, while some may burst and cause sudden death. Without an autopsy, the real cause of death may never be known.
Besides the safe handling of carcasses and advice for travellers in wolf country, (which could be just about anyone anywhere these days), Dr. Geist advises that to control the disease, “we may have to do controlled burning of big game winter ranges to burn off the eggs.”
This sounds a bit extreme until one begins to understand how wolves spread hydatid disease across the landscape and the serious threat this, and other wolf transmitted diseases, pose to public health.
Folks who happen to kick up or disturb wolf feces risk contamination because, as Dr. Geist points out, “the tiny eggs, liberated by the millions in carnivore feces, are dispersed even by slight air currents.” Disturbing a pile of dried out wolf feces can “liberate clouds of tape worm eggs and this cloud of eggs will settle on your clothing, your exposed skin, in your sinuses and windpipe, on your lips, and if you inhale, through the mouth in your oral cavity.” Animals that graze in areas visited by wolves are extremely vulnerable to the parasites. They can ingest the cysts directly during foraging, or simply pick them up on their fur.
Geist goes on to say that, “People with dogs are at [higher] risk because their dogs may feed, unbeknown to them, on carcasses or gut piles of big game infected with that disease…These dogs will defecate in kennel and yards, spreading the tiny eggs. They will also lick their anus and fur spreading the eggs into their fur. The eggs will cling to boots and be carried indoors, where they float about till they settle down as dust. Now everybody is at risk of infection, especially toddlers crawling around on the floor.”
Th CDC has a good visual synopsis of hydatid disease showing how it is transmitted from canines to livestock and then on to humans. Now substitute an elk, moose, or deer for the sheep in the diagram below, and thousands of untreated wolves for the “dog” pictured and you will begin to see the magnitude of the problem we are facing.
Any responsible dog owner knows that regular veterinary visits are important in maintaining their dog’s health. But how many will go out for a walk in the woods and not know that their dog has picked up hydatid cysts on their paws or fur and brought them back into their yards and homes? Even if dogs are not allowed inside the home, a dog owner can track the cysts into the house on their shoes.
As Geist explains, “Hunters and ranching folks keeping or hunting with dogs in areas infected with hydatid disease are thus much more at risk than urban populations. The disease is silent, difficult to detect till very late, innocuous when the infection is light, provided the cyst is not interfering with vital functions, but lethal if it does, especially if cysts form in the brain…..Since hydatid disease is a silent disease that takes time to develop, there is not likely to be a problem till a number of people down the road are affected seriously.”
See the entire PDF “Dr. Valerius Geist’s Response to the Claims That Hydatid Disease Spread by Wolves Does Not Represent a Significant Threat to Humans” here:
In a Jan. 2, 2011 article “Worldwide Evolution of the Predator Disease Echinococcus granulosus and Its Impacts” By Clayton [Clay] H. Dethlefsen, AS, BS, MBA, MMS, PI, PS, IT, WPCA President and Executive Coordinator, and Dr. Jack K. Ward, DVM- Medical Director, state that:
“The disease is considered to be so rare in the United States that our physicians do not deliberately examine for Hydatid Cyst. Hence, discovery is by accident rather than by design. This is an extremely dangerous oversight. Many of our loved ones may be, or are now being, exposed to the disease while hunting, fishing, camping or engaging in other outdoor activities.”
“Additional countries are adding to the knowledge we now have about the devastation E. granulosus and E multilocularis are reaping. Hence, there are no doubts these diseases present a worldwide Health, Safety and Welfare problem. More importantly for us, they are creating a very local one.”
“Of these two species, E granulosus is now solidly established in our Northwest, including Alaska, and Canada. Although E multilocularis is usually the most lethal, E granulosus, because of its widespread geographical and concentrated ecological distribution, is now considered to be more infectious to humans.”
In Turkey, a nation that has a significant population of wolves, hydatid disease is described as a “common infectious disease” present in sheep, cattle, dogs, and humans. It is often fatal. Although this Turkish Health Ministry video ignores the original source of the problem (wolves), it does provide crucial information for U.S. citizens that we just aren’t getting from our own departments of health or wildlife:
The loss of common sense among the general populace over the last fifty years guaranteed that the breakdown in governance we are witnessing today was inevitable. Millions of Americans are now at increased risk of contracting wolf borne pestilences on a scale not seen since the middle ages. Blame rests squarely on the shoulders of all those folks who acted in favor of rewilding the planet. But there’s enough guilt to go around to cover everyone else who didn’t do a damn thing to stop it.