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Ticks Are In Wyoming. Here's What To Look For.

Outdoor recreation is a popular pastime in Wyoming. But when people spend time outside, they run the risk of being bitten by ticks that carry a variety of diseases. But the types of ticks, and the diseases they carry, changes across the country. To learn more, Wyoming Public Radio's Ivy Engel spoke with Dr. Will Reeves, a medical and veterinary entomologist with the CP Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity in Colorado.

Will Reeves: There's two families of ticks that are in Wyoming, one of them are the hard ticks, Ixodidae, which are the ticks that if you've seen a tick, you're familiar with. Those are the ticks you find on your dogs or walking around on you. The other family of ticks are called Argasidae. They look like walking raisins. They live in animal nests usually, so people don't often encounter them. Really it's just one or two species that you're going to encounter most often.

Ivy Engel: And what would those one or two species be?

WR: So the most common ones, if you're out throughout most of the state, is Dermacentor andersoni, the Rocky Mountain wood tick. That's the one that is most likely to end up, you know, you're getting back in your car and you see a tick walking up your pant leg or something, that's the one you're most likely to encounter. There's a couple other species that you might find in cities where students have come back with something from the East Coast. You find the American dog tick does occur, but it doesn't do great in Wyoming because it's really cold and dry here. So a lot of species that don't live in cold, dry climates don't do great, but you'll still find them because people move them in. They could do okay during the summer.

IE: So you kind of talked about cold and dry, a lot of ticks don't do well here. So with climate change, and places generally warming, is that going to affect tick populations?

WR: That's hard to say. So you know, yes, of course, if it gets colder and drier or warmer, or if you change your snowfall patterns, any of those things could change your tick populations. I actually talked to some of my collaborators in public health just last week about this, and some of them said, 'We think that the cool wet spring that we had on the Front Range probably helped increase the number of ticks in parts of the Front Range of the Rockies just because it was cooler and wetter, and so less things dried up and died.' And if you have a good snow cover, at the right time of the winter, it stays, ironically, stays warm under the snow. So if you're an arthropod, like a tick or anything else, waiting for spring, being under snow is much more survivable than being out in the wind in a dry winter.

IE: That's super interesting. I never would have even connected that. What kinds of diseases are here in Wyoming, in the area? And why should we be concerned about them?

WR: There's probably a number of obscure diseases, but the big ones would be Colorado Tick Fever, not exclusively found in Colorado, that's pretty much transmitted by that Rocky Mountain wood tick. It's a virus. It causes a tick-borne fever. It can be pretty severe. It can be transmitted pretty quickly. So a lot of the tick-borne diseases, that tick has to be actually feeding on you for hours to maybe days. But the viruses are often transmitted much quicker. There's Rocky Mountain spotted fever, named for the Rocky Mountains, also transmitted primarily by Rocky Mountain wood tick. In many cases, people contracted it, they don't know, they're really relatively asymptomatic, they recover. But if you develop the full-blown rash and disease with the fever, if it's severe, it can kill you. However, you can give someone the right antibiotics, and they'll probably recover. There's also tularemia which is commonly called rabbit fever. It can be transmitted by ticks. It's not a super rare disease for wildlife to have. And then there is some risk of what's called Q Fever. It's not terribly rare in the right animals in Wyoming.

IE: We do have Lyme disease or no, what about that?

WR: The bacteria that causes Lyme disease has been found in ticks just south of here in Colorado. Most of those ticks don't really bite people. They're more small, medium-sized animal feeders, so things like rabbits and small rodents. So you would have to be very unlucky to get Lyme disease from a tick here. So it's not saying that it couldn't happen. But you would be very unlucky versus if you're on the East Coast, or maybe in California, where the vectors will feed on people quite readily.

IE: How the heck do you know if it's been attached for longer than an hour or so?

WR: Obviously, if you just get back in your car, and there's a tick walking up your pant leg, or walking on your shirt, or something, it's not attached, didn't feed on you. Ticks aren't very mobile when they're full of blood anyways, so yeah, I would dispose of that tick. And I wouldn't say that I have no concern, because obviously there's other ticks in the area, but that one probably didn't transmit anything to you. But if you find a tick on you, and the general guidance to say like, if you wake up in the morning, and you're combing your hair or something like 'Oh, there's a tick on my head,' or you know, one time I was like, 'that's a really weird mole... and it has legs.' At that point, you should think, 'I had a tick feeding on me. I don't know how long it was feeding on me.' If you start feeling any sort of disease symptoms, you know, fever, aches, pains, anything weird in the next couple of weeks or so, you might think about telling a medical professional, to say 'Look, I had a tick on me last week. And now I've got this weird pain in all my joints and I have a fever.' It might be something totally unrelated, but it's good to know.

IE: That makes sense. How do you avoid getting bit by a tick in the first place or having them on you?

WR: I mean, number one, be aware of the environments you're going into. If you're going to be on a well manicured golf course or on a running trail that's in town, your risk of ticks is probably pretty low. They don't like that kind of environment. But if you're gonna go out fishing on the Platte River, in tall grass, then be aware you're entering a tick habitat. What would you do? Ticks don't attach really quickly. So having a light pair of clothing obviously helps you see a dark object crawling up you. You can treat yourself or your clothing with repellents or with some sort of pesticide, so permethrin treated clothing. If it says tick on the label, you could apply that, apply it as it says on the label. And most of those will at least deter ticks from attaching to you. If you're really worried about it because you're going to be in a place that has high tick density, doing things like, it might look a little goofy, but if you tuck your pant legs into your socks, they won't be able to get inside your pants, and then crawl up the inside of your pants. Extra layers of clothing, anything like that would allow you to just get away from ticks. If you have just been in a tick prone location, don't then take all of your clothing off and say, leave it in your bedroom near your bed or near your pets, because those live ticks, which you've just removed with the clothing, are then going to quest for the nearest CO2 source, which is you. Put it in the wash - ticks will not survive the wash.

IE: That makes sense. What about protecting your pets because you also kind of spoke about that, that you can do things for that?

WR: First, to know is that several of those tick-borne diseases are hazardous to your pet. I would literally talk to your veterinarian, or many of the pet stores will have it too, so there'll be different products which are labeled for ticks, different options, but you want to make sure that it says on it, 'This is labeled for the animal' because just like drugs and people, animals can react to it quite poorly.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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