Wolverines, lynx and moose: Fish and Game Wildlife Screens for COVID

Moose refuse to move from a train track near Caswell, Alaska. Heavy snowfall in recent weeks in the area has made it difficult for moose to travel, putting catchers on high alert. (Lex Trainen/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has begun testing wildlife for COVID-19. It’s part of a partnership with the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists want to make sure that a new variant does not appear in animals and thus infect humans.

But Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife health veterinarian at Fish and Game, says you don’t have to worry too much about getting COVID-19 from an animal.

“It’s more of a concern to us than infecting wildlife and if wildlife could become a reservoir, but that hasn’t been shown yet,” she said.

When she says “reservoir,” she means that the danger is that the virus can take hold in a group of animals, mutating and infecting humans with a new form.

In Alaska, biologists collect samples from a number of mammals: deer that live near residential areas, lynxes (because they got them in zoos in the south) and deer animals – this is wolverine, mink and fish. There are plans to test caribou and black Sitka deer, as well as seals and beluga in the North Slope Borough.

If you’re wondering how to test a beluga bug for COVID-19 – yes, you survey the blowhole. For other animals, it’s a nasal swab, much like the way humans test.

“We attach it to each of the nostrils, but we go deeper,” Beckman said. “I mean we go up to eye level and we roll it up and then we put it in the media and then we send it to the lab.”

Other states have tested bears. Beckman says Alaskans will likely do the same when they come out of hibernation because bears that have been exposed to human litter are at risk of infection.

It says the state has submitted more than 100 samples for testing but has not gotten many results yet because the outbreak of bird flu on the East Coast is keeping labs busy.

David Salfield is a wildlife biologist in Anchorage who added COVID-19 testing to his regular fieldwork this winter. It hunts wolves and lynx using traps that do no harm to them. He then calms the animals down so he can collect samples such as nasal swabs and blood draws.

He says he added a COVID check around halfway through his season.

“So there wouldn’t be a ton of animals, even if we say two or three wolverines and seven or eight lynxes that I sampled,” he said.

There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by handling or eating meat from wild game. Fish and Game recommends that anglers use the same precautions as always: wear clean gloves and knives, and don’t touch any strange-looking wipes.

Hunters can report sick animals or strange behavior to Fish and Game.

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