ISSUES & POLICY Where We Stand
A Better Fight Against Cattle Fever Ticks
By Federico Nieto, TSCRA Fever Tick Subcommittee chair
TSCRA representatives meet with Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. regarding the fever tick issue. From left are Dave Delaney, TSCRA Fever Tick Subcommittee member and rancher from Kingsville; Dr. Andy Schwartz, Texas Animal Health Commission executive director; U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway; Rep. Filemon Vela (Texas-34); Freddy Nieto, TSCRA Fever Tick Subcommittee member and rancher from Raymondville; Dr. Brian McCluskey, USDA APHIS Veterinary Services chief epidemiologist.
We have been fighting cattle fever ticks in South Texas for more than 100 years. It is an expensive and hard fight, but South Texas ranchers and our state and national animal health agencies know how important it is to protect the rest of the U.S. from the disease-causing organism carried by two species of ticks that can infest primarily cattle, but also white-tailed deer and nilgai antelope.
Private landowners have an arsenal of weapons to use against the ticks. We use prescribed fire, we reduce the population of the non-native nilgai, we manage white-tailed deer hunting, we treat the cattle we are grazing on our pastures, and at certain times of the year we put out ivermectin-treated corn for white-tailed deer.
These are the five methods used in the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program (CFTEP). This program is administered by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC).
South Texans have spent millions of dollars implementing these practices on their own lands. However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is responsible for the nearby Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges, has used only some of these practices and the ticks flourish on those refuges.
At our ranch, we have been frustrated year after year as we clean up parts of the ranch only to have white-tailed deer or nilgai from the refuge carry ticks back onto our land.
Fortunately, in February, we saw encouraging movement toward a more uniform, South Texas-wide effort to eradicate the ticks in this region.
Thanks to Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) members working with USDA APHIS and TAHC, leaders at the FWS saw scientific evidence that supports the use of cattle grazing and the timely distribution of ivermectin-treated corn to white-tailed deer as tick eradication tools.
FWS managers of the refuge lands have used prescribed burns, have been reducing the population of non-native nilgai antelope and have been allowing white-tailed deer hunting on the lands.
But they were not using the treated corn and hadn’t allowed grazing on the refuges since the 1970s.
While private landowners were using all the weapons we could in an all-out effort to get rid of the ticks, it was frustrating to know our neighbor was limiting their use of the tools and putting a much-less-than-full effort into the battle.
We thank the FWS personnel who have expanded the management of the Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges to include all the practices outlined in the CFTEP.
This is a huge achievement for the beef industry and an enormous relief for ranchers and landowners adjacent to quarantined refuge lands.
Why are we still battling ticks after more than a century when we had pretty good success 70 years ago?
In South Texas, from the 1900s to the 1940s, we were able to push cattle fever ticks to a thin, permanent quarantine zone along the U.S./Mexico border. In those decades, there weren’t as many white-tailed deer as there are now and nilgai antelope were just beginning to be imported and established in the region.
Things are very different in 2018. White-tailed deer populations and nilgai are thriving and they serve as secondary hosts for the ticks. Also, weather cycles in recent decades have allowed cattle fever tick populations to expand.
As a result of more hosts — and certainly the white-tailed deer and nilgai are more mobile hosts than cattle — and favorable weather conditions, nearly 3,000 premises encompassing almost 1.4 million acres are under some level of quarantine due to cattle fever ticks.
Quarantined ranchers and private landowners are obligated by law to comply with the cattle fever tick eradication efforts prescribed under the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program.
We hope our FWS neighbors will join us in using these strategies to the fullest.
We encourage the expanded use of prescribed burning on the Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges.
We hope FWS will to continue to use hunting as a method to manage for healthy white-tailed deer populations, and to significantly reduce the population of non-native nilgai antelope on the refuges.
It is gratifying to know that cattle will be re-introduced to the refuge lands. Cattle serve at least two purposes in fighting ticks. They are the only host for the tick that can be gathered and treated year-round and cattle are our best means to monitor the presence of ticks on the landscape.
It is good to know that the FWS managers will add the distribution of ivermectin-treated corn to white-tailed deer on the refuges. At our ranch, we have used ivermectin-treated corn for the last two years, and so have other ranchers in South Texas. Wildlife managers are careful to remove the treated corn well in advance of hunting seasons so there is no issue with ivermectin residue.
The U.S. cannot afford to let cattle fever ticks expand into the range occupied in the early 1900s — across the Southern U.S. and into the Midwestern states.
We will keep an eye on cattle fever tick issues on behalf of our neighbors and friends in South Texas and on behalf of our ranching friends in the rest of the U.S.
TSCRA members are glad to know that the managers of the wildlife refuges will be using all the available tools. This will help all of us wage a better fight against cattle fever ticks.
Cattle Fever Tick History
Cattle fever ticks, Rhipicephalus annulatus and Rhipicephalus microplus, can carry 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 the affected cattle.
In the early 1700s, cattle fever ticks were introduced into the U.S. on horses and cattle brought to America by Spanish colonists.
The U.S. livestock industry started to feel the impact by 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, the devastation of fever tick outbreaks prompted the Texas Legislature to form the Livestock Sanitary Commission, now known 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.
Rhipicephalus annulatus and Rhipicephalus microplus cattle fever ticks were eradicated from the U.S. by 1943, except in the Permanent Quarantine Zone in South Texas that extends more than 500 miles from Del Rio to the Gulf of Mexico. This was 21 years before Texas and New Mexico were declared free of the endemic screwworm infestation in 1964.
In 1943, the presence of screwworms had minimized white-tailed deer populations in Texas, and the nilgai antelope that were introduced in the 1930s had yet to build-up significant population numbers.
Cattle were the only host that could effectively spread cattle fever ticks at that time. This enabled the systematic treatment of cattle to be very effective in eradicating cattle fever ticks from the U.S.
Today, white-tailed deer and nilgai populations have impeded the effectiveness of the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program (CFTEP) against cattle fever ticks and have abetted the spread of these parasites northward into areas that haven’t had a presence of cattle fever ticks since the early 1900s.
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