DNR announces field trial for the study of vaccinating deer against bovine tuberculosis

ALPENA — A field study is underway in Alpena County to evaluate the delivery of an oral bovine tuberculosis vaccine for wild deer.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is collaborating with Michigan State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Wildlife Services to explore the development of a new, future tool to manage bTB, which could help to further protect wildlife, livestock and the public from this disease.

“We are very excited to explore a potential new tool that can facilitate efforts towards the long-term goal of bTB eradication in Michigan,” said Melinda Cosgrove, laboratory scientist manager with the DNR.

Bovine tuberculosis is an infectious, zoonotic disease affecting both humans and animals. The disease is slow-growing and is primarily spread through respiratory secretions when infected animals expose uninfected animals by nose-to-nose contact or contaminate shared feed and water. In Michigan’s bTB area (which includes Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency, Oscoda and Presque Isle counties), the disease is established in the deer population, and it can be transmitted between deer and cattle.

Michigan has been working toward the eradication of bTB in deer for 30 years, and significant progress has been made by the DNR and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) in reducing the prevalence of the disease and protecting deer and cattle health. However, while the level of disease in wild deer is low, it has remained steady for over a decade, prompting the need for new tools. A unified and sustained approach to protecting human, wildlife and livestock health is critical to further progress toward bTB eradication.

In 2016, researchers collaborated with the DNR to begin evaluating how wild deer could be vaccinated against bTB. This led to a multipart study starting in 2020 investigating a method to potentially deliver an effective oral bTB vaccine to deer in the bTB area. Dr. Henry (Rique) Campa III with Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife shared that “all of this work provided evidence and a foundation for how to implement the next step of this collaborative project.”

Part 1: Spatial modeling to examine factors influencing disease spread and to improve understanding of how tools, such as harvest and vaccination, can aid in reducing or eliminating bTB in wild deer.

Part 2: Penned deer trials that demonstrated orally vaccinating deer is feasible.

With Parts 1 and 2 completed, Part 3, the field trial portion of the study, is now underway. “The amount of partner work involved in this project is impressive. It is exciting to be in Part 3. We are hopeful this pilot can lead to an effective tool to further reduce the presence of bTB in Michigan,” said Mitch Marcus, DNR Wildlife Health Section supervisor.

From late February through April 2024, the USDA-WS is placing vaccine delivery units (VDUs) at selected sites in Alpena County to evaluate the ability to deliver the vaccine to wild deer. With landowner consent, approximately 15 sites are being used for this field trial, focusing in the area of Green West, Green East, Wilson West, Wilson East and Ossineke West townships.

VDUs are systematically placed in crop fields where USDA-WS has determined deer are present. Vaccine-laden VDUs are left out for up to two days; any units left unconsumed will be recovered. Sites are regularly being monitored with cameras and by USDA and MSU personnel. The VDUs consist of cubes of shredded alfalfa and molasses that house an edible sphere, encapsulating the liquid vaccine.

Several weeks following VDU deployment, USDA-WS will harvest deer under DNR-issued deer permits from the trial sites and collect samples, which will be analyzed by the State of Michigan and USDA.

Conducted under the guidance of a Michigan licensed veterinarian and approved by the USDA, this field trial is the next step in determining the practicality and viability of oral bTB vaccination of wild deer.

“At MDARD, we are constantly looking for innovative new tools to integrate within our current programs to better protect Michigan’s cattle from bovine tuberculosis and other harmful diseases,” said State Veterinarian Dr. Nora Wineland, DVM, MS, DACVPM. “We are supportive of this research and look forward to learning more about how this vaccine can be used to address this disease and keep cattle and other animals, including deer, safe from bTB.”

The DNR will conduct a full evaluation of this initial study before undertaking any additional field trials. The public will be notified if further trials are initiated.

For more information regarding this field trial, visit Michigan.gov/BovineTB.


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