First cases of bacterial disease, brucellosis, found in Mulchatna caribou

Feb 1, 2021

State biologists have found an unusual disease among caribou in Southwest Alaska. Biologists typically find the bacteria brucella, which causes brucellosis, in caribou herds to the north.

A common symptom of Brucella in caribou is swelling in the knee, where most of the bacteria is stored. Brucellosis can cause a high fever similar to the flu in people.
Credit Courtesy of GNWT Environment and Natural Resources, ADF&G

State biologists have found an unusual disease among caribou in Southwest Alaska. The disease is called brucellosis, and the Department of Fish and Game recently detected cases in the Mulchatna Caribou herd; they discovered the first potential case about a year ago.

The disease is caused by the bacteria brucella; it can be lethal to caribou, and it can also lead to miscarriages. 

Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen is a wildlife veterinarian for Fish and Game.

 

“This was the first time that we were having actual cases in the Mulchatna herd," Beckman said. "It’s such a low level in caribou throughout Alaska that we don’t pick it up very often. Right now we know there’s an increase, ‘cause more caribou in the herd have brucella or are showing antibodies. ”

Biologists have detected those antibodies during routine sampling. They also found the bacteria in two dead caribou and have observed swollen knees and enlarged scrotums in others.

A common symptom of brucellosis in caribou is swelling in the knee, where most of the bacteria is stored.

In people, brucellosis can cause a high fever, similar to the flu. Beckman said people can stay safe by handling raw meat carefully and cooking it properly.

 

“Freezing doesn’t kill the bacteria," she said. "Smoking and drying is not extremely effective cause there can be some pathogens and parasites that survive those. So it’s really important to cook the meat to 165 degrees.”

After handling game meat, wash your hands thoroughly and clean utensils with hot, soapy water. 

Biologists typically find brucella in caribou to the north, in the Western Arctic, Teshekpuk and Central Arctic herds. There aren't enough samples from the Mulchatna herds to determine how many cases are present. Beckman advises those who harvest Mulchatna caribou to report any signs of the disease to the state. 

Contact the author at tyler@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200