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Making Yukon's roadkill count

Dr. Jane Harms hoists a rigid coyote carcass onto a sterile metal countertop. She turns it over slowly, pointing out the grit and abrasions on its side and haunches, the blood congealed on its teeth and muzzle.

Dr. Jane Harms hoists a rigid coyote carcass onto a sterile metal countertop. She turns it over slowly, pointing out the grit and abrasions on its side and haunches, the blood congealed on its teeth and muzzle.

The animal is frozen solid, but its two back legs move freely - they’re both broken. “The only thing I’ve seen do that to an animal,” Harms says, “is a vehicle.”

The coyote is roadkill, one of the hundreds of animals killed on the territory’s highways and roads each year. It’s a sad toll, but one that the Yukon government attempts to make the most of. After their deaths, conservation officers and members of the public bring the road-killed animals here, to the Department of Environment’s animal health unit, where Harms is the program veterinarian.

She and her colleagues use the carcasses in an array of studies and surveillance projects aimed at protecting the health of the Yukon’s wildlife populations, and at preventing the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

Once it thaws, Harms will remove the coyote’s head, open up its body cavity, and take out its brain and guts for testing. When it comes to the Yukon’s carnivores, the department has two main concerns: The brain will be tested for rabies, and the intestines for echinococcus, a parasite that can pose a potential threat to human health.

On the counter next to the coyote, a mule deer’s hide is spread out flat, the paler patches of its fur tinted pink. Dr. Harms uses a knitting needle to part the fur in long straight lines, exposing the skin to her scrutiny. A petri dish filled with alcohol sits nearby, and two ticks float in it, the smaller of the two - a “nymph” tick, meaning that it’s at a post-larval, pre-adult stage of development - engorged with blood.

She’s checking the hide for evidence of winter ticks, one of the department’s main concerns for the Yukon’s ungulate species - deer, elk, caribou, and moose. The ticks are more common down south, where they pose a threat to moose in particular: while deer are quite skilled at grooming themselves to remove the insects, moose are much less so.

In some cases, the giant animals have been colonized by thousands of ticks, and have been killed by blood loss, starvation and exposure. As the ticks move north, it’s not yet clear how caribou will react to the parasites, and the animal health unit is anxious to keep a close eye on their progress.

Harms’ other main task when road-killed ungulates come in to the lab is checking their brain tissue for signs of chronic wasting disease. “It’s a disease we have no cure for,” she says.

And it’s a special cause for concern because “there’s potentially an unresolved zoonotic component.” Zoonotic pathogens are those which can be transferred from animal to human.

She also uses the carcasses of female caribou for a reproduction study. Because females are rarely hunted, the roadkills provide a unique research opportunity: Harms samples their ovaries and uterus, and also checks their teeth to determine their age.

“You have to take opportunities where they arise,” she says of studying wildlife populations. “It’s not like a vet clinic.”

For their tick surveillance, Harms and her colleagues don’t have to rely solely on roadkill. It’s mandatory for hunters to bring in the hide and head of elk they’ve killed, and the department also requests that hunters bring in moose and deer hides, too. Checking the hides used to require boiling them down, which was a deterrent to voluntary compliance in the program - hunters were left without a hide from their kill. But the animal health unit has developed a new in-house protocol that allows them to sample the hides without damaging them.

The potential to return carcasses to the members of the public who bring them in is important to keep the research going. “If we keep the public happy, they keep bringing us stuff,” says Harms.

Carnivore hides - wolves, bears, foxes, and the more rare wolverines, lynx, martens and fishers - are especially popular requests, and many Yukoners are also keen to mount the bodies of the birds that they find. “People get very passionate about it.”

When a fresh carcass arrives at the lab, Harms does an initial intake and assessment to be sure that a vehicle accident was, in fact, the cause of death - as opposed to poaching or other illegal activity. Any red flags will result in a full post-mortem.

“You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to find evidence of a bullet or a pellet,” she says. She recalls one fox that came in with no sign of trauma other than a patch of blood on its leg. It was only after Harms had opened the animal up and found its chest cavity filled with blood that she was able to determine that a pellet had gone through its aorta, causing it to hemorrhage into its own chest.

If a carcass shows any sign of zoonotic diseases - pathogens which can range from minor skin infections right up to the hanta virus - the lab can’t return it to the public. But when regulations permit, they do their best to return the animals intact for possible mounting or display.

They’re also studying lead levels in the Yukon’s scavenger birds - eagles, ravens and crows for the most part - and they’re able to sample the birds’ livers without ruining the carcass for future taxidermy. And when a moose or caribou comes in fresh with its flesh largely intact and undamaged, after testing to be sure of its viability, the conservation officers offer the meat to the traditional food program at the hospital.

Governments making scientific use of roadkill is not terribly unusual; it’s done down south, too. But, says Harms, “we’re unique in the northern jurisdictions because of how many roads we have.” That allows the Yukon to carry out monitoring and research on northern species that isn’t necessarily being done elsewhere.

It’s a sort of morbid silver lining: The same road network that results in so many animal deaths each year also allows the veterinarians at the animal health unit to keep a close eye on our wildlife populations - and to protect human health, too.