With files from Jeff Nagel
Provincial wildlife officials are concerned that a disease killing deer and elk on the prairies could spread into B.C.
Chronic wasting disease, a degenerative nervous system condition similar to so-called mad cow disease, has been discovered in an animal 30 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.
That’s the furthest west – by about 100 kilometres – that biologists have detected the deadly disease and the discovery intensifies concerns that infected deer may make their way to B.C.
No infected animals have been found yet in B.C. but wildlife health staff are stepping up monitoring efforts in the Peace and Kootenay regions, where deer are most at-risk.
Cait Nelson, a Wildlife Health Biologist with the Province of B.C. says the province has been conducting surveillance and doing testing of wild deer since 2001, and has yet to find a deer that’s positive for the disease.
“To our knowledge, the closest cases of chronic wasting disease in wild deer are currently in eastern Alberta,” Nelson told the Townsman. “It was first introduced to Canada in Saskatchewan, and it’s slowly been spreading west.”
The natural spread of the disease from animal to animal is going to happen quite slowly, Nelson said. But awareness and vigilance on the part of the public will be a great help in prevention.
“Our concern is that the disease could be introduced quicker if it’s imported by a hunter,” Nelson said. “So if someone from B.C. hunts in the prairies where chronic wasting disease occurs, and brings back an intact carcass or some infected tissues, that could affect our environment here in this province.”
Nelson said the symptoms of the disease might not appear for a number of years after infection. An infected animal could look like it’s in good condition for quite some time before it starts exhibiting the symptoms. Once the disease takes hold, symptoms would look like weight loss, drooling or poor coordination and stumbling.
“If anyone in the backcountry observes a deer, elk or moose exhibiting those types of symptoms, we’d definitely like to hear about it.”
Although chronic wasting disease is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Alberta’s agriculture and forestry ministry says there’s no evidence it can infect humans, but notes the World Health Organization advises against allowing any meat source possibly infected by prions into the human food system.
It’s thought to be unlikely that the disease could spread to domestic cattle or bison.
Outbreaks on game farms typically result in quarantines and culls.
Transmission is through saliva, urine and feces and is thought to be more likely to occur where elk and deer are crowded or congregate at man-made feed and water stations, according to the Alberta ministry.
“The disease has been a challenge in other jurisdictions, but how we deal with it in B.C. is going to depend on the circumstances,” Nelson said. “The best thing we can do now is to make sure the public knows how to help prevent the introduction of chronic wasting disease to the province.
“It would also be really great if hunters and members of the public help us out by learning more about the disease and taking part in surveillance.”
“Hunters can submit heads that we can test, and if it does ever show up, early detection will be key in managing it.”
Anyone with concerns or sightings can call the BC Wildlife Health Program. The Program has a website — www.stopchronicwastingdisease.ca — all contact information is there.