Rabid Alaska wolf prompts health warnings

ANCHORAGE — A rabid wolf killed near Chandalar Lakes and transported to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough has state health and wildlife officials warning Alaskans to be on the lookout for other animals that may be infected.


The rabid wolf was the first infected animal to be documented around Chandalar Lakes, an area south of the Brooks Range about 185 miles north of Fairbanks.

The trapper discarded the skinned, beheaded carcass of the sick wolf in a forested area near Palmer and state wildlife officials warned that contact by other animals could spread the disease.

Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms said its presence in the Mat-Su is not grounds for panic. After tests on the head confirmed rabies, the rest of the carcass was retrieved. The rabies virus is found in an infected animal’s nervous system, and nervous system tissue on the carcass such as the spinal cord had not been scavenged.

“The chances for transmittal are low, but they exist,” Harms said by phone from Fairbanks.

The department is asking people to report if they see abnormal behavior in wildlife such as wolves, wolverines and foxes. Rabid animals often display no fear of people, wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen said in a department announcement. They sometimes attack inanimate moving objects or move erratically.

The wolf shot by the trapper had closely approached him. Harms said the trapper cut himself while skinning the animal, and alerted by its odd behavior and alarmed at the chance of infection, turned the head over to the department for testing.

After rabies was confirmed, the trapper received a full range of immunizations, including shots, said Department of Health and Social Services spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

Rabies outbreaks rise and fall in Alaska. The virus is always present in Arctic fox populations that life along the coast, Harms said.

“The prevalence of it, the cases, go up and down depending on a variety of things, often following a boom in the lemming population,” she said. More lemmings mean more fox food, and eventually more foxes and more interaction between foxes, she said.

The disease has been detected in moose in Russia, beavers in Virginia and caribou in Alaska, she said.

The disease is spread through saliva when a predator bites another mammal. It’s also spread when a scavenger eats infected nervous system tissue.

The Fish and Game Department expanded rabies surveillance over the last two years and tested more than 1,000 specimens. It found a rabid wolverine near Umiat on the North Slope. The department also concluded that 3 percent of the red foxes trapped near Bethel had tested positive.

The Department of Health and Social Services announced it will expand the range of its lay vaccinator program because of the wolf incident. The program will cover villages in the Yukon-Koyukuk census area that are within 100 miles of Chandalar Lakes.

Wildlife officials also want to test the frozen heads of more animals trapped or shot near Chandalar Lakes or the Fortymile area.

“It’s a new area for documenting a case,” Harms said. “What we hope to learn is, has it been there all along or is this something new?”


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