Tick proposal includes grazing on Laguna Atascosa

January 11, 2018

HARLINGEN — A proposal to fight cattle fever ticks on federal refuges includes more hunting, feeding insecticide-laced corn to deer and grazing herds of cattle on protected lands.

The proposal, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), is a sharp break with existing regulations — especially allowing herds of cows — on wildlife refuges dedicated to native species.

The environmental assessment for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge has been released for public comment through Jan. 18.

“I don’t know what people would say, that’s the point of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) is to get public comment,” Laguna Atascosa refuge manager Boyd Blihovde said of grazing cattle on the refuges.

“Some people are going to say this is a good thing, and others surely may have issues with it. And that’s what we want to hear about.”

Hunting expansion

The Laguna Atascosa refuge has allowed hunting for white-tailed deer and non-native nilgai antelope for years during regular Texas deer seasons.

In 2016, Laguna Atascosa increased the bag limit for deer from two to five per season, which is the maximum allowed under state law.

“This increase in potential harvest of white-tailed deer was done solely to help eradicate the CFT (cattle fever tick), the environmental assessment reads. “Implementation of additional emergency white-tailed deer hunts on the (South Texas refuges) may be initiated as soon as state seasons allow. In addition to regular hunts, emergency action hunts will focus on Laguna Atascosa tracts where a hunt program does not currently exist.

“An emergency firearm public hunt is proposed for Unit 7 of Laguna Atascosa (a previously non-hunted unit) and will include white-tailed deer and nilgai,” the assessment reads.

In an effort to reduce non-native nilgai which, like deer, can carry the cattle fever tick, Laguna Atascosa has had hunting seasons and aerial culls of the antelope which have totaled almost 600 animals. Those culls would continue under the new rules.

Ivermectin-laced corn for deer

The proposal favored by federal government officials would set up feeding stations with ivermectin-laced corn to kill cattle fever ticks on white-tailed deer.

The feeders would be surrounded by three-foot-high mesh fencing to keep other species away from the insecticide-laced feed, and feeding of the deer would cease two months before hunting season in order for the deer to be free of the anti-tick chemicals if shot and eaten by hunters.

“The treated corn is placed in gravity flow feeding stations from February through July … to control (cattle fever ticks) in deer populations (nilgai are not consistently attracted to the feeders, thus, are not treated),” the assessment reads.

Game cameras will be placed around the feeders to monitor both the deer coming into the feeders as well as nontarget animals to determine their exposure to the insecticide.

‘Sentinel’ cattle herds

Since inspecting white-tailed deer or nilgai for cattle fever ticks is impossible, federal officials want the ability to graze private cattle herds on refuge property as “sentinel” animals to determine if the overall cattle fever tick eradication is working.

“APHIS and TAHC have proposed these,” said Laguna’s refuge manager Blihovde. “We are cooperators as an agency, and that’s the way the EA was written.

“Their scientists are experts on tick removal and this is just one of the techniques they’re recommending,” he added.

The cattle would consist of heifers and steers only, which would eliminate the bulls which can be cranky during roundups.

Cattle would be injected with the anti-tick drug doramectin while grazing on the refuges, and would be gathered either in portable corrals or by cowboys on horseback every three to four weeks, then inspected to see if they are carrying cattle fever ticks.

Since water on refuges is often scarce, particularly during droughts, permittees would be required to provide water for the cows either by piping it in from an adjacent private landowner, trucking it in or using an existing resaca or canal.

Tick outbreak

A disease carried by the ticks can cause weight loss and death in cattle, and has been regarded as a serious threat to the Texas beef industry for a century.

Periodic irruptions of the tick occur as it spreads northward out of Mexico, and currently Texas is in one of those tick phases.

Portions of 10 South Texas counties have established fever tick quarantines outside of the permanent quarantine area totaling approximately 708,335 acres. The counties include Cameron, Live Oak, Hidalgo, Kinney, Kleberg, Maverick, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata.

The disease called babesiosis is caused by a protozoan carried by the ticks. At present, ticks collected during the latest Texas outbreak have been free of the disease, but the potential threat posed to the state’s $13 billion beef industry has prompted action by state and federal authorities.