Cattle fever ticks remain endemic to Mexico, and could spread across much of the Southern United States.
Cattle fever ticks remain endemic to Mexico, and could spread across much of the Southern United States.

Producers in Southeastern Texas, and stakeholders across the U.S. beef industry, are calling for increased control measures for cattle fever ticks along the Texas-Mexico border.

Speaking on NCBA’s Beltway Beef program this week, Texas cattleman Dave DeLaney says the U.S. House Agricultural Committee recently held a hearing on the topic, with stakeholders expressing concern over wildlife in federal wildlife refuges harboring and potentially spreading the ticks.

Cattle fever is a severe and often fatal disease of cattle transmitted by cattle fever ticks, Rhipicephalus annulatus, and southern cattle ticks, R. microplus. These ticks, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission, can carry the protozoa Babesia bovis or B. bigemina, commonly known as cattle fever. The Babesia organism attacks and destroys red blood cells, causing acute anemia, high fever, and enlargement of the spleen and liver, ultimately resulting in death for up to 90 percent of susceptible naive cattle.

DeLaney says that until recently, the USDA’s progam for preventing spread of the ticks outside permanent quarantine zones along the border had been successful. In 2014, however, movement of wildlife, primarily whitetail deer and nilgai (an Asian antelope introduced in the area), brought the ticks into the Laguna Astacosa National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf coast. The area, DeLaney says, features dense wildlife populations and brushy, difficult-to-access habitat. Private ranches in the area tend to be very large, with remote pastures and dense populations of deer and nilgai.

The ticks now have spread into surrounding Willacy and Cameron Counties, and animal-health officials have designated a temporary quarantine zone covering around 300,000 acres. DeLaney says there are no natural barriers to prevent the spread of fever ticks outside the area other than the freeze zone, well north of the currently affected areas. Without control measures, the ticks could spread across much of South Texas and into neighboring states.

A Texas A&M University economic study on fever ticks indicates a potentiall disastrous economic impact of up to $100 million per year to the region’s cattle industry, and as much as $1 to $2 billion over 10 to 15 years. Individul producers in the region could be forced out of business if the pest continues to spread.

DeLaney says the industry now has an opportunity to stop the spread of fever ticks, with cooperation from federal agencies. Earler this month, he says, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), and U.S. Representative Filemon Vela (D-Texas) sent a letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for support in controlling the ticks on the federal wildife refuges. They, along with area producers and NCBA, want the Fish and Wildlife service to implement a three-pronged management plan to stop the spread of the ticks. This approach would include:

1.       Graze cattle on federal properties. As the preferred host for fever ticks, these cattle could be periodically gathered and treated, to break the lifecycle of the parasite.

2.       Strategic treatment of wildlife. Administering a broad-spectrum parasite treatment in wildlife feed, at strategic times, has been shown to reduce tick populations in the permanent quarantine zone.

3.       Reduce wildlife densities in problem areas. DeLaney says that nilgai, an exotic species, travel long distances, and their growing populations in the wildlife refuge pose a threat to surrounding areas.

Listen to the Beltway Beef audio broadcast from NCBA.