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Yukon biologists unveil plan to kill winter tick infestation

Biologists in the Yukon hope that giving some free meals to elk herds will help wipe out a winter tick infestation that they fear could spread to the territory's indigenous moose population.

Biologists in the Yukon hope that giving some free meals to elk herds will help wipe out a winter tick infestation that they fear could spread to the territory's indigenous moose population.

Biologists with the Yukon's Environment Department laid out a plan Tuesday to deal with the deadly winter ticks, which have already infected most of the territory's elk.

The Yukon could spend around $100,000 this winter on the plan, government elk biologist Rick Ward said at a public meeting Tuesday.

While no moose have been infected with the ticks to date, Ward said officials are taking steps now to prevent the ticks from spreading.

"We're not sure what the risk is to moose, or what the risk these ticks pose to moose," he said. "Over the winter, we are going to try and collect additional information."

Wildlife staff hope feeding the elk with corn and tick-killing medication will keep the ticks from spreading to moose. They have already been setting corn out in the bush, in an effort to get the elk accustomed to eating it, Ward said.

Later, they will use more corn to lure elk into a pen, in which the elk will be given medication to kill the ticks, he said.

Also known as moose ticks or elk ticks, winter ticks infect both elk and moose. Eventually the animals lose so much blood and hair, they die of emaciation and exposure.

The ticks are not indigenous to the Yukon and are believed to have moved north with the elk, which are also not native to the territory.

Since their arrival last year, the ticks have infected all 18 elk in a Whitehorse-area herd. As many as 2,000 insects have been seen sucking the blood of each elk, biologists said.

"What we are seeing is a lot more hair loss on our elk than they see down south, so that may mean that they have heavier tick loads," government wildlife veterinarian Michelle Oakley said.

Hunters asked to turn in moose hides

Ward and Oakley say they have also asked First Nations hunters to turn in moose hides from animals they have shot, to allow them to determine whether the ticks are infesting moose.

"We are working with four of the First Nations that are around this elk herd area. They are asking their people to turn in hides from moose that are harvested in the winter," Oakley said.

"At that time of the year, from kind of December and January on, the ticks — especially the females — are very large. They're about the size of the tip of your pinky nail."

If the efforts this winter don't pay off, Ward said, they may have to consider killing infected elk to halt the infestation.

Another public meeting has been set for May to report on progress.

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