Wolverines, lynx and elk: Fish and Game screens wildlife for COVID

A moose stands in a snowy train track with a yellow locomotive behind it
A moose refuses to move from a train track near Caswell, Alaska. Heavy snowfall in the area in recent weeks has made travel difficult for moose, keeping holidaymakers on high alert. (Lex Trains/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has begun testing wildlife for COVID-19. It is 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 ensure that a new variant does not develop in animals and subsequently infect humans.

But Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian for Fish and Game, says she shouldn’t worry too much about getting COVID-19 from an animal.

“It’s more of a concern of ours to infect wildlife and whether wildlife can become a reservoir, but that hasn’t been demonstrated yet,” she said.

When she says ‘reservoir’, she means that there is a risk that the virus could settle in an animal population, mutate and infect humans with a new variant.

In Alaska, biologists are collecting samples from a number of mammals: moose that live near residential areas, lynx (because they got it in zoos in the south), and mustelids – those are wolverines, minks and martens. There are plans to test caribou and Sitka black-tailed deer, as well as seals and belugas in the North Slope Borough.

If you’re wondering how to test a beluga for COVID-19 – yes, you’re wiping out the blowhole. For other animals, it’s a nasal swab, much the same as how we test humans.

“We put it in both nostrils, but we go much deeper,” Beckmen said. “I mean, we go down to the level of the eye and roll it around and then put it in the media and then that’s sent to the lab.”

Other states have tested bears. Beckmen says Alaska will likely do the same when they emerge from hibernation, as bears exposed to human waste are at increased risk of infection.

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

David Saalfeld is an Anchorage wildlife biologist who added COVID-19 testing to his regular fieldwork this winter. He catches wolverines and lynx with walk-in traps that do them no harm. He then anesthetizes the animals so that he can take samples such as nasal swabs and a blood draw.

He says he added COVID screening about halfway through his season.

“So it wouldn’t be a ton of animals, 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 wild game meat. Fish and Game recommends hunters take the same precautions as always: wear gloves, clean blades, and don’t touch any strange-looking tissue.

Hunters can report sick animals or strange behavior to: Fish and game

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