RANGELEY, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Maine's October moose hunt is in full swing, and not only are hundreds of bulls and cows being harvested, but a bounty of information about potentially deadly diseases is being gathered as well.
"We ended up deciding to take a look at both deer and moose as species we could use as surveillance projects, to look for the disease where it might be occurring and see if the disease is even happening in years where we don't have any human or livestock cases occurring," explained Chuck Lubelczyk, a biologist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute's Vector Borne Disease Lab.
Seven mosquito pools in southern Maine tested positive for West Nile Virus this year in five different communities. In addition, Eastern Equine Encephalitis swept through a flock of pheasants in the town of Lebanon. With only twenty-six test sites scattered through the state, experts believe there are many more areas where the diseases occured, but were not detected.
"There could be animals, wildlife, dropping from these diseases every year. We never see them because they are out in the woods," said Lubelczyk. "It certainly has the potential to be a wildlife problem as well."
For the past few years, biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have teamed up with researchers from Maine Med, college students and guides to gather blood samples from moose, deer and even some turkeys at tagging stations throughout the state to get a better handle on how widespread the problem is.
"The numbers have been anywhere from about 8 to 12%, which for a disease prevalence rate is fairly high," said Lubelczyk. "I think what it is telling us is we have parts of the state where these diseases are cycling every year, and the real question for us is, why is it some years that - if these diseases are here every year - why do they jump into the human or livestock population?"
The blood samples are shipped to the federal Centers for Disease Control for testing, and the results are put into databases to help researchers determine what factors play a role in how the disease travels and where are people and animals at highest risk of contracting the disease.
Lubelczyk says they have seen positive tests in wildlife come from areas where no cases have ever been recorded, as far north as Fort Kent and Madawaska in Aroostook County.
He says by better understanding the nature of the diseases, they hope they can help protect people and animals from becoming sick in the future.