By Bob Ferris
“Because the tiny eggs, liberated by the millions in carnivore feces, are dispersed even by slight air currents, it is important for reasons of personal health not to poke or kick such feces. It will usually be dry and will then liberate clouds of tape worm eggs and this cloud of eggs will settle on your clothing, your exposed skin, in your sinuses and windpipe, on your lips and if you inhale through the mouth in your oral cavity. If you lick your lips, the eggs will get into your oral cavity. When sinuses and windpipe clear themselves of inhaled particles with your sputum, the eggs will get into your mouth and be swallowed with sputum. If you touch the feces or even poke it chances are the cloud of tiny eggs will also settle on your hands, and may contaminate the food you handle or eat.” Dr. Valerius Geist in The Outdoorsman Bulletin 37 January 2010
In January 2010 retired Canadian ungulate ethnologist Dr. Valerius Geist painted this vivid, cautionary picture about the reality of life now that the northern-biotype of Echinococcus granulosus (a tapeworm) had been discovered in wolves in Idaho and Montana. This is all pretty scary to all of us who traverse wild areas in Idaho and Montana.
Soon thereafter this image of nearly explosive, lupine-generated fecal offerings was making it around the electronic superhighway. For example, on February 9, 2010 conservative web-commentator Lynn Stuter also talked about this airborne threat (“Infection of ungulates (hoofed animals) is obviously through air currents spreading the eggs to grass and surrounding vegetation that ungulates eat”). Then it was circulated on Skinny Moose, Idaho for Wildlife and a number of other hunting or anti-wolf websites. The only problem is that the image is a false one–see excerpts below.
"Many people believe ungulates and humans can become infected by breathing airborne spores near dried wolf feces. Drew said
Echinococcus granulosus do not produce spores and the only danger comes from fresh feces that is [are] still moist.
"The eggs do not survive desiccation. Once they dry out they are not viable," he said.
Dr. Mark Drew–State of Idado Veterinarian in Missoulian
“Although they can survive freezing conditions, they are vulnerable to heat and desiccation. Cool, damp conditions increase the survival time of the eggs.”
“Desiccation (1) and high temperatures (2) are factors that limit egg survival in nature…”
The eggs are highly resistant to environmental factors and can remain infective for many months or up to about 1 year in a moist environment at lower ranges of temperatures (about +4°C to +15°C). Eggs of Echinococcus are sensitive to desiccation. At a relative humidity of 25%, eggs of E. granulosus were killed within 4 days and at 0% within 1 day. Heating to 60°C-80°C killed eggs of E. granulosus in less than 5 min. On the other hand, Echinococcus eggs can survive freezing temperatures (8, 12, 30) (Chapter 7)
Were this the only factual error perhaps it would not have been a big deal, but Outdoorsman publisher George Dovel–the former pilot and self-proclaimed catalyst for scientific game management–entered the act and wrote his own piece in that issue. In his article Mr. Dovel offered up a muddle of misinformation that failed to differentiate between the two forms Echinococcus granulosus and also confused E. granulosus and E. multilocularis as well as their associated diseases–Cystic Hydatid Disease and Alveolar Hydatid Disease respectively. These inaccuracies were then repeated by Ms. Stuter in a post ironically entitled “The Truth About the Wolves (Part 1 of2).” This too was spread far and wide to the Skinny Moose choir and elsewhere.
To Ms. Stuter’s credit she tried to correct some of her mistakes in a subsequent post on February 16, 2010, but not all and she continued to rely heavily on Dr. Geist and Mr. Dovel as sources. What’s more she closed with: It is pretty obvious that the disease is spreading and that wolves are spreading it.
Her last statement is unsupported. All peer-reviewed articles at this point present a cloudy “chicken and egg” scenario with the strongest statement being that the sylvatic or northern form of the tapeworm could have been brought in by either the reintroduced wolves or naturally recolonizing wolves moving south. Others have argued that this tapeworm might be enzootic and already present in background levels kept active by other canids such as coyotes or foxes. This “obvious” cause and effect relationship is also problematic because the first documented cases in Idaho did not show up until nearly a decade after the translocation. And absolute knowledge about the above is confounded by the lack of regular sampling regimes that could establish clear and well defined causal relationships.
Then on January 16, 2013 Ms. Stuter wrote a letter to Washington wildlife commissioner Phil Anderson. The letter was re-posted under the title “Outright Lies” Spoken at Wolf Meeting in Spokane and contained the following paragraph relating to Echinococcus:
2. Tapeworms in wolves are the same as in caribou, elk, moose, coyotes, raccoons, dogs and sheep. Wow, talk about spreading disinformation and misinformation! Canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes) are the definitive host of the Echinococcus granulosus (E.g.) tapeworm; ungulates and humans are the intermediate host. Ungulates and humans do not contract E.g. unless a definitive host is present. Historically, E.g. existed above the 45th parallel in the sylvatic (wild) form and cycles between wolves and ungulates, including livestock. It can be contracted by humans. Historically, E.g. existed below the 45th parallel in the pastoral (domesticated) form and cycles between sheep dogs and sheep. It can also be contracted by humans. E.g. did not exist in coyotes or dogs in the United States until wolves were introduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho without being properly wormed. E.g. does not exist in raccoons. E.g. causes Cystic Hydatid disease as opposed to Alveolar Hydatid Disease caused by the Echinococcus multilocularis (E.m.) tapeworm which cycles between carnivores (canids, fox, felines) as the definitive host and rodents (also humans) as the intermediate host. E.m. has been found in parts of eastern Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota and is far more dangerous to humans than E.g., not discounting that E.g. can be fatal in humans, especially if the cysts form in the heart, spine or brain or burst inside the body. A ruptured cyst causes anaphylactic shock leading to death. Teens, playing sports, are susceptible to blows that can burst undiagnosed cysts. Cysts are difficult and expensive to remove with few American doctors knowledgeable about diagnosis, treatment and removal. Dogs, feeding on the offal of infected dead ungulates, become infected and spread the E.g. eggs on the grass around the home and on floors and furniture if allowed inside the home; the eggs are very mobile, moving to vegetation including gardens, berry plants and fruit trees; most often how humans are exposed to Cystic Hydatid. The eggs remain viable for years, are immune to cold and water, are killed by fire. Babies crawling on floors, children playing in grass if the family dog is infected, rural people are very susceptible to Cystic Hydatid which can exist in the body for years without detection. People camping, hiking, and berry-picking in wilderness areas are also susceptible, especially if sleeping on the ground, drinking out streams, or eating fruit without washing it first. Cases have been diagnosed in Idaho.
Here again, Ms. Stuter demonstrates increasing but still inadequate knowledge and understanding of this complex issue. For instance, the initial statement is not false per se because “tapeworms” could and probably does refer to both forms of E. granulosus as well as E. multilocularis. The latter is found in a wider variety of carnivores (also omnivores) including raccoons. So her strong statement in response to this initial and unqualified claim is unwarranted.
Her declarative statement about sylvatic E. granulosus not occurring in the US prior to wolf translocation is false on two levels. First, Alaska is part of the US and has clearly had E. granulosus for quite some time. And, if she was actually referring to the lower 48 states, this is incorrect as well because sylvatic E. granulosus has been reported in California, Oregon, and the Great Lakes region prior to the Yellowstone wolf restoration efforts. The presence in the former two states occurred in the absence of wolves.
In terms of the human health risks claimed in Ms. Stuter’s statement they are difficult to assess or critique because specific relative risks were not delineated and the imprecision of the statements makes it challenging to ascertain exactly which Echinococcus strain or species is in question.
This Echinococcus issue is a perfect example of why some applicable technical training is relevant to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of experts and literature sources. My advice to those wanting to comment in this arena and on wolves in general is to be careful and less quick to call people liars or write strongly worded letters to decision makers until you master the complexity of the subject matter. This advice also applies to those who disseminate information—check your facts and then check them again. And if your source is proven false, it is likely a good time to seek other sources and perhaps re-evaluate your conclusions.