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Raccoon bait air drop by copters to fight rabies starts Tuesday

The annual local air drop of raccoon bait laced with rabies vaccine is scheduled to begin Tuesday, with helicopters dropping bait in cities and other populated areas of Erie and Niagara counties.

The air drop, to continue through Friday, will be followed up the week of Aug. 13 with fixed-wing aircraft spreading bait in rural areas of the two counties.

In addition, spreading of bait by hand in Chautauqua County is to begin this week, according to Dr. Laura Bigler of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, who supervises rabies vaccination efforts in New York State.

James J. Devald, Niagara County environmental health director, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now funding the program, which was started in 1995 by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Cornell to break the back of a raccoon rabies epidemic that was raging at the time. Erie County began taking part in 2002.

Bigler said the three Western New York counties are among only 11 in the state taking part.

The bait -- made of fish meal, a wax binder and fish oil -- will not attract raccoons to the property, nor are they harmful to humans, pets or wildlife, said Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County commissioner of health.

Raccoons don't always observe county boundaries, so some of the raccoons and other rabid animals found in the counties with baits may not have originated there, Bigler said.

"The area we're doing is relatively small, so we're always going to have challenges from Orleans County, Wyoming County and other areas that aren't baited," Bigler said.

As of June 30, Niagara County had reported only three rabid animals, all raccoons, this year.

Orleans County had seven reports in the same period, but Bigler said there might be more rabies in Orleans County than meets the eye. In counties that aren't being spread with raccoon rabies vaccine-laden bait, rabies reports are only taken when a suspicious animal bites a human or has a run-in with a pet, she said.

But in Niagara, Erie and Chautauqua, "We do enhanced surveillance. We collect cases of animals acting strangely and test those, too," she said.

Devald said two of Niagara County's three rabid raccoons this year were found in the Town of Somerset, which borders Orleans County, so they may have been immigrants from the other county.

Erie County has had 16 confirmed rabid animals this year, which is tied with Saratoga County for the second-most in the state. Rensselaer County, which does not use vaccine-laden bait, leads with 18 cases. Chautauqua County has had six.

The nonbaited counties of Western New York don't have high numbers. Besides Orleans' seven cases, Cattaraugus County has had five confirmed cases this year, Wyoming and Genesee counties each have had one, and Allegany County hasn't had any.

The helicopters dropping bait this week are being supplied by the State Police and will take off from Prior Aviation at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The planes will be supplied by Dyanamics Aviation and will fly from Meadville, Pa.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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