By: J.D. Cage, chair, TSCRA Fever Tick Subcommittee
Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) leaders and staff have heard from many members and ranchers regarding the recent spread of fever ticks in South Texas.
Fever ticks are capable of carrying a microscopic parasite that causes bovine babesiosis, also known as cattle fever. This disease causes acute anemia, fever and an enlarged spleen and liver, often leading to death for cattle. As such, the spread of fever ticks poses a major threat to the entire United States livestock industry and economy.
In the early 1700s, fever ticks were introduced into the U.S. on horses and cattle brought to America by Spanish colonists. The impact was not majorly felt by the livestock industry until the late 1800s when southern cattle driven into northern states caused the death of northern cattle along the route. The same held true when northern cattle driven south died when they reached their destination, coining the term “Texas fever” or “cattle fever.”
In 1885 Kansas passed a law that prohibited the movement of Texas origin cattle across its state line due to the spread of Texas cattle fever. This new law paired with restrictive legislation in many other states effectively ended the nostalgic Texas cattle drives of the late 1800s.
In 1893, fever tick outbreaks actually prompted the Texas legislature to form the Livestock Sanitary Commission, now referred to as the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), with the primary mission of eradicating the fever tick. The creation of this Commission speaks to the historical magnitude of the fever tick issue.
For more than 100 years, fever ticks in the U.S. have been the target of a government eradication program. Thanks to a collaborative effort between ranchers, TAHC and United States Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), fever ticks have been contained since 1943 to a thin strip of land along the Texas/Mexico border, known as the “permanent systematic quarantine zone.”
Due to some changes in the ticks’ environment in South Texas and existing regulations on ranchers, fever ticks appear to be moving north. In recent years an increase in wildlife population has made life easier for the fever tick and harder for ranchers to fight it under existing TAHC and USDA APHIS regulations.
Under current regulations, ranchers in areas designated as “infested” are required to gather, treat and inspect 100 percent of their livestock, including cattle and equine. Ranchers can either use a medicated dipping treatment every 7-14 days or give a dose of Doramectin every 25-28 days for a minimum of 6-10 months. The only alternative for ranchers is to remove all livestock from their property.
On May 31, TAHC adopted rules approving the use of a new vaccination to be used in conjunction with treatment and inspection requirements to more effectively eradicate ticks and limit future infestations. TSCRA submitted written and oral testimony at a recent TAHC meeting supporting use of the new vaccine and highlighting other concerns with the existing regulations.
TSCRA stated in their comments that the 100 percent gather and treatment requisite is unattainable for many ranchers, therefore making it impossible for ranchers to comply with TAHC and USDA APHIS regulations. Gathering and treating all livestock at this frequent pace makes this option both logistically unfeasible and financially devastating.
Additional issues with loss in cattle production, inability to attain status release benchmarks due to incomplete gathers, livestock husbandry issues and substantial expenses makes this option unworkable for ranchers.
When ranchers realize adhering to the gathering and treatment regulations are impossible, they often have no other choice but to remove all livestock from their property. TSCRA and virtually all affected ranchers have expressed grave concerns with any regulations that inadvertently cause ranchers to vacate livestock from an infested pasture.
White-tailed deer and nilgai antelope serve as secondary hosts for fever ticks. However, the ticks show a preference for cattle in areas where a mixture of livestock and wildlife exists. Vacating all cattle and other livestock from an infested or adjacent area would only shift the fever ticks to wildlife, which can travel great distances in a short span of time.
Vacating all livestock would cause fever ticks to move more rapidly through an area into previously uninfested cattle pastures. For this reason, it is important that regulatory agencies have a set of practical rules that will not incentivize or leave cattle ranchers with no practical or economical alternative to vacating all livestock from their property. This will result in a more effective program to prevent the spread of fever ticks.
TSCRA suggests regulations include flexibility in the gathering frequency and treatment regimen they require for livestock based on fever tick prevalence of the premises, pasture size, labor availability, livestock temperament, time since last gathered and other unique gathering challenges of the quarantined property.
TSCRA also requested in their comments that TAHC provide ranchers with clarity regarding which regulative authority is responsible for administering a herd management plan. Ranchers often work and coordinate with both TAHC and USDA APHIS personnel. Producers need to know which government agency is responsible for enforcing compliance and eventually releasing premises from quarantine.
Ranchers and landowners have worked tirelessly with TAHC and USDA APHIS to combat the fever tick, however there are some unique situations making it even more difficult to manage the most recent outbreak. The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), consists of 223,000 acres of protected natural habitat in Cameron and Willacy Counties.
Fever tick infestation rates on nilgai and other wildlife on parts of the refuge are very high however FWS has yet to take aggressive action to control the infestation on the refuge. The lack of action from FWS has increased the likelihood of further infestations and is causing neighboring ranches to struggle in their efforts to keep fever ticks off their livestock.
Additionally, after more than two decades of using Ivermectin treated corn to control fever ticks in the white tail deer population, FWS has recently suspended its further use not only on the refuge, but also on other private property in the immediate area. TSCRA believes this suspension and the current state of inaction are unacceptable given the seriousness of the issue and the real and urgent danger of spread of fever ticks throughout South Texas.
TSCRA firmly believes FWS needs to create and follow through with a plan to combat the spread of the fever tick from the refuge to bordering properties. That plan must include immediate steps to eliminate the source of fever ticks in wildlife populations on the refuge. The lack of a short and long term plan of action, coupled with onerous federal regulations, has only made the situation more perilous for the South Texas cattle industry.
In order to address the concerns raised in TSCRA’s comments, the TAHC approved of the creation of a new working group including affected ranchers. TSCRA looks forward to participating in this working group and will keep TSCRA members updated on key developments regarding fever tick issues.
Lastly, TSCRA greatly appreciates the many ranchers who have devoted a great amount of time and personal resources toward treating and inspecting their livestock to control the fever tick. TSCRA knows cattlemen and women want to control the fever tick more than anyone. TSCRA will always support their efforts and keep the fever tick issue a top priority.
J.D. Cage II of Muleshoe, Texas, operates the Cage Ranch in Earth, Texas, and partners with his son, Jay, on their family ranch in Eagle Pass. J.D. currently serves as the TSCRA Fever Tick Subcommittee chairman and he was elected to the TSCRA board of directors in 1984. To read the comments TSCRA submitted, click HERE