An annual federal rabies control effort is underway in northeastern Maine, with 351,000 doses of an oral vaccine spread through the woods, where they’ll hopefully be eaten by raccoons.

The vaccine baits are coated with fishmeal, which attracts animals, and is either packaged in a 1-inch square cube or in a 2-inch plastic sachet.

The program, first used in Maine in 2003, targets raccoon rabies and is run by Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Robin Dyer, state director and wildlife biologist for the USDA, said via email that the baits, which cost about $1 each, will be primarily spread using two King Air A90 airplanes. Wildlife Services staffers will load the baits into hoppers during flight.

The baits will be spread over a 2,405 square miles, according to a news release from the Maine Department of Human Services. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are also cooperating on the distribution effort.

The goal: Prevent the spread of raccoon rabies.

“We are baiting in northern Maine, but not in the whole state because we are creating a barrier to prevent rabies from spreading north or east further into New Brunswick,” Dyer explained. “We can’t cover the entire state because it is logistically and cost-prohibitive, but our goal in time is to move the barrier south as we achieve elimination.”

Dyer said the presence of an international border complicates things a bit, but the U.S. and Canada are steadfast in their efforts to fight the disease.

“USDA Wildlife Services has been working to eliminate raccoon rabies from northern Maine because the virus poses a threat to human and animals,” Dyer wrote. “Wildlife Services also collaborates with Canadian officials in New Brunswick and Quebec to reduce the presence of rabies across Maine and Canada.”

Humans and pets cannot get rabies by making contact with the baits, but people should leave them undisturbed if they find them in the wild. According to the release, the vaccine has been shown to be safe when consumed by more than 60 different species, including dogs and cats. Dogs that consume a large number of baits may develop upset stomachs, but there is no known long-term health risks.

Dyer did issue one caution, however.

“Do not attempt to remove a bait from your pet. Doing so may cause you to be bitten and could lead to a vaccine exposure,” she wrote. “If your pet becomes ill from bait consumption, please contact your veterinarian for more information.”

Dyer recognizes the fact that people might find the baits on their property. Here’s her advice if that should happen:

“It is best to leave a bait where it is found unless it is on your lawn, driveway, or other area where it is not likely to attract a raccoon, fox, or coyote,” she wrote. “While wearing a glove or other protective covering (i.e. plastic bag, paper towel), you can move bait to a wooded area where a wild animal will be more likely to find it. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with the bait.”

Maine isn’t the only site that receives the oral vaccines. The Maine distribution program is part of a larger effort to prevent the westward spread of raccoon rabies by creating a barrier along the Appalachian Mountains from the Canadian border all the way to Alabama, according to the DHHS release.

Plattsburgh, New York and surrounding areas will get 171,000 baits; Allegheny, Pennsylvania and that area will receive 302,000 baits; North Lima, Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia will receive just more than 1 million baits; Clarksburg, West Virginia and nearby areas will receive 932,000 baits. In rural areas the vaccine is often distributed by airplane or motor vehicle. In more urban environments, either motor vehicles or helicopters are used.

The area in Maine being targeted includes Mars Hill and Houlton in the east and Weston in the south, as well as Oxbow, Patten and Stacyville.

According to the news release, 30 cases of animal rabies has been diagnosed in 15 of Maine’s 16 counties this year. The wild animals affected: bats, raccoons, striped skunks, red foxes and gray foxes.

According to a separate news release issued by the USDA, the Wildlife Services National Rabies Management Program was established in 1997 to prevent the further spread of wildlife rabies in the U.S. The program has resulted in three significant accomplishments, according to the USDA: The elimination of canine rabies, the near-elimination of gray fox rabies in Texas, and stopping the spread of raccoon rabies from the Eastern U.S. into new areas.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services explained that rabies is most often transmitted through a bite from an infected animal and is almost always fatal when symptoms are present. In humans, timely post-exposure treatment is effective in preventing the disease.

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, the DHHS says people should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, contact their health care provider and contact the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-821-5821.

According to the DHHS press release, the U.S. effort to prevent and control rabies costs more than $300 million per year.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...