Skunks are now the main target in a vaccine bait air-drop program credited with eliminating rabies strains that infect coyotes and gray foxes in Texas, state health officials said Thursday.
The Texas Department of State Health Services program has operated since 1995 and is costing $4 million this year. It involves dropping about 2.7 million doses, in fishmeal-coated packets, for wildlife to eat, according to agency spokesman Chris Van Deusen.
"It is not as broad a problem as it was 20 years ago. We've made so much progress, now turning our attention to skunks. They are the main reservoir outside of bats for rabies," Van Deusen said.
He said the packets won't harm pets and proved safe in tests involving more than 60 species of animals. People should avoid the bait because wild animals are less likely to eat packets that carry a human scent, Van Deusen said.
If residents find a packet, they should throw it in the trash or "pick up the bait with a glove or a plastic bag, so your scent doesn't get on it, toss it in the woods nearby," he said.
The department uses five airplanes to scatter the bait, in addition to a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department helicopter, Van Deusen said. Hand baiting will be done in wild areas around El Paso, he said.
Planes began flying from Brenham on Wednesday, dropping bait in 17 counties in Central Texas: Austin, Bastrop, Brazos, Burleson, Colorado, Fayette, Fort Bend, Grimes, Houston, Lavaca, Lee, Madison, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, Washington and Wharton.
The vaccinations will be dropped in South Texas later this month with flights out of Del Rio, Alpine and Zapata, Van Deusen said. Parts of 18 counties will be covered: Brewster, Cameron, Dimmit, Edwards, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kinney, Maverick, Pecos, Presidio, Starr, Terrell, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata and Zavala.