Research tracking tick increase in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For the past several years veterinarians have been seeing more and more ticks in Alaska. Now, a grant is allowing collaborative research with state agencies and the University of Alaska to create a database to monitor the spread of the arachnids.

"Most people can go through their recreation up here and maybe never even find a tick," state veterinarian Bob Gerlach said. "But with warmer temperatures we're seeing increased populations and more ticks being found in both wildlife and domestic animals."

While ticks are not commonly seen in Alaska, there are six native species. Four of them use birds as a host. The other two are the squirrel tick and hare tick.

In 2011, the state vet and veterinarians with the Department of Fish and Game began a tick surveillance program. Since then, seven non-native species have been found in Alaska.

"Either found on animals that have moved into the state, or sometimes just animals here, resident animals that have been playing out in the park and come back and have a tick on them," Gerlach said. "So we're worried that these invasive species, the new ticks can come in and establish residency and then cause a problem for both people and animals here."

Gerlach says at least two non-native species — the American Dog Tick and the Brown Dog Tick — have been able to establish populations in Alaska.

The tick surveillance program was relatively rudimentary in its early days. Now, with grant funding and in partnership with the University of Alaska, the surveillance program is becoming more robust.

"Previously in the state they were accepting ticks for submission and they would get them identified, so you knew what kind of tick it was," said Micah Hahn, professor of environmental health at UAA.

Because of a grant, researchers are able to test the ticks in a lab at UAF to see if they are carrying any diseases.

"The last step is that with the information that people provide us in terms of where they found the tick," Hahn said. "We'll geocode it so that we can actually put it on a map so that we can create a map of where all of the ticks of different species have been found across the state, and which ones tested positive or negative for these different diseases."

The researchers says that having baseline information on the ticks in Alaska can help prevent an outbreak of tick-borne disease.

"We have the benefit in Alaska that because we're so far North we haven't seen the epidemic of ticks and tick-borne disease that people have seen in other parts of the lower 48," Hahn said. "If we're prepared and we're looking for these ticks we can really be at the forefront of the problem."

Anyone who finds a tick in Alaska can learn more about submitting it to the research project at the State Veterinarian website.