Cull bid to stop spread of chronic wasting disease

Cull bid to stop spread of chronic wasting disease

July 21, 2001 The StarPhoenix by James Parker
The provincial government is planning to kill thousands of deer in a bid to control the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the wild.

A major deer herd reduction will take place this fall south of Lloydminster in the Manito Sand Hills area, where two animals have tested positive for the fatal disease, Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM) policy analyst Kevin Omoth said this week.

SERM is also planning to increase the number of "samples" of deer taken near elk game farms where CWD has existed for some time. And it wants more hunters to turn in the heads of deer for testing. Last fall, 1,400 heads were submitted, a total which exceeded the government's expectations.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) intends to destroy about 900 elk at four Saskatchewan game farms this summer in what it hopes is the final stage of an eradication program, said veterinarian program specialist Ken Stepushyn.

During the last 18 months, 4,600 elk and deer, and a handful of cattle and bison, have been destroyed as part of an effort to eliminate CWD in Saskatchewan - the only province to be hit by the disease. Twenty-nine elk herds across the province have been infected.

CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that attacks the brains and nervous system of cervid (deer family) animals. While scientists are uncertain how it's transmitted, they believe it doesn't cross the species barrier.

CWD is related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the variant of mad-cow disease which affects humans. But there's no evidence it can be transmitted to humans.

It's thought the disease first emerged in an elk herd living along the border area of Colorado and Wyoming. Both states have approved a reduction of the deer herd in the affected area, where six per cent of the deer are believed to have CWD.

"We're fine tuning the details in consultation with American experts and local people," Omoth said of the culling in the Manito Sand Hills.

"We don't have an exact number (of deer to be killed) right now. We're looking at the size of the area and determining the population. Then we'll determine a goal."

However, Omoth said it's likely hundreds and possibly thousands of deer will be eliminated in the herd reduction and kill off near the elk farms.

There are about 4,500 whitetail deer and 1,000 mule deer in the wildlife zone that includes the Manito Sand Hills. SERM pegs the provincial population of whitetail deer at more than 300,000 and the mule deer population at more than 80,000.

SERM will announce details of its CWD strategy in September, before hunting season begins. But already landowners living close to Neilburg, near the sand hills, are worried.

"Maybe it's a disease that has to be contained," said Mel McCrea, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Hillsdale.

"But if you take away one thing, you have problems with another. People are losing calves from coyotes already.

"My concern is the coyote problem is going to get worse without the deer."

McCrea said there's also worry an influx of hunters will result in property damage. In addition, local hunters are concerned they will have to go further afield to take a deer once the herd reduction is complete.

Omoth said the government will work with landowners to ensure the hunt is carried out smoothly.

He said hunters will be allowed into a specific area for a one to two-week time period during the season, so the number of people on the land will be limited.

They will be obligated to submit their deer heads for testing and will be advised to eat the meat only after test results come back.

"We're trying to do this as efficiently as possible," said Omoth. "With any luck, we'll take out all the infected animals."

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