Hunters worried about zombie deer disease

Deer standing in a backyard in Midland, Ont. Photo credit: Jody Smith

Local hunters in Ontario are worried about chronic wasting disease (CWD) entering Ontario borders.

After a case of CWD was found in Quebec last fall, the Ontario government has put surveillance measures into place.

In September 2018, a red deer farm close to the Ontario and Quebec border—almost directly across the Ottawa river—was reported to be infected with the disease.

According to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), CWD has become a threat to reaching wildlife in Ontario.

However, the surveillance is protecting Ontario’s deer population to prevent further spread of the disease, says the OFAH.

Every year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) runs a computer model to survey deer farms.

Using this surveillance system, the MNRF looks at the population of deer farms, according to Keith Munro, a wildlife biologist with the OFAH, monitoring how close they are to the previously reported case of CWD.

“It is important to know you have it as quickly as possible, so you can respond as quickly as possible,” said Munro. “Surveillance is not prevention.”

Munro also said there are freezer depots set up across the province, large coolers where hunters can drop off the heads of game they have shot. Specialists then pick up the body parts and test for CWD by taking out bits of the brain.

CWD is part of a group of disease called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE), including Mad Cow Disease. TSE is a specific family of proteins that causes the brain to deteriorate. Yet little is still known about the disease.

It affects members of the cervid (deer) family across Canada, the United States and various other countries.

Other members of the deer family, aside from the common white-tailed deer include moose, elk, and caribou.

“We don’t know if CWD has affected any other animals outside of the deer family,” said Jolanta Kowalski from the MNRF.

CWD is an untreatable and fatal condition. It affects the nervous system of the animal and is highly infectious.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says transmission happens through saliva, milk and feces. Symptoms of the disease include, loss of body weight, abnormal behaviour and paralysis. There is no sign of it affecting humans.

Public health officials recommend wearing rubber gloves when handling game, especially while handling the spinal cord. Handling brain tissue when gutting the animal should be avoided.

Quebec has put a surveillance system into place to keep track of any further cases of CWD in their province’s wildlife.

Saskatchewan and Alberta have also had cases of CWD.

The OFAH has been pushing for deer farms to be eliminated in Ontario since 1991.

In mid-March, experts on CWD were in Ontario to spread awareness about the disease. The meeting featured experts from both Canada and the United States.

The conference explained what CWD is, how to keep it out of Ontario and the environmental impacts of the disease.