Reps. Dye, Schmick respond to rancher concerns about diseased livestock

Ninth District State Reps. Mary Dye and Joe Schmick are hoping a meeting last Friday in Pullman between Eastern Washington ranchers and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will help increase prevention efforts against the spread of a dangerous viral illness threatening livestock and wildlife.

Symptoms of the illness, known as bluetongue, include ulcers, sores, painful hooves, lameness and reproductive problems, and breathing problems leading to death. The tongue is often bluish in color, giving the disease its name.

In drought seasons, cattle, sheep, goats and deer often use the same spots for water, leading to concerns by ranchers that infected deer may be spreading the disease to their local herds. However, veterinarians point out the disease does not spread from animal to animal, but is spread by biting insects, called midges, which nest in those watering holes.

Lawmakers received calls from local cattlemen concerned about encroaching populations of deer that may be infected.

“One rancher told us he had 150 deer trampling a 50-acre hayfield in the middle of arid, dry rangeland,” said Dye, R-Pomeroy. “His field was like the local drive-thru for hungry wildlife, and his concerns about potential illness were real.”

“We typically see an increase in this disease every four or five years,” said Schmick, R-Colfax. “But last year’s hot weather and drought contributed to the severity of the bluetongue outbreak that continues into this year.”

To address concerns, Dye and Schmick contacted Washington State University veterinarian Joe Baker who helped to organize a meeting June 24 at the Paul G. Allen Center for Global Animal Health in Pullman. Ranchers, officials from the WDFW, and top veterinarians and biologists from Washington State University were in attendance, as well as Dye and Schmick.

“The meeting became almost an animal brain trust with some of the top experts in the field from WSU,” said Dye, a sheep farmer. “Fish and Wildlife officials and our constituents also sat down at the table. We were able to drill down on the questions so we can work on ways to prevent losses in the herds and in Washington wildlife.”

“Rather than looking at who is responsible for the disease transmission, this meeting was about all of us working together to keep it out of our wildlife and the livestock population,” added Raquel Crosier, a Fish and Wildlife legislative liaison.

The lawmakers said those at the meeting discussed new ways to educate ranchers about bluetongue, insect infestation and how to ensure the herds are safe. Also being considered is a comprehensive packet of information that can be disseminated to the ranching community, either through local veterinarians or through community meetings. Vaccinations, which are available in some states, are under consideration in Washington state, but have not yet been approved.

“This is how we solve these problems. We bring experts in these fields into one room. We learn more about cattle behavior, the activity of the deer, and the insect habitats,” noted Dye. “We are able to find the truth and bring forth education using the knowledge and expertise that all of these people provide.”

People who observe suspected bluetongue symptoms in white-tailed deer are asked to call WDFW’s eastern regional office in Spokane at (509) 892-1001 or the department’s dead wildlife hotline at 1-800-606-8768.

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