While the presence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) may be on the rise in Saskatchewan, increased communication efforts have also driven up the count of hunter-harvested head testing samples.
CWD is a fatal disease which affects the nervous system of deer, elk, and in rarer cases, moose. The disease spreads among ungulates via saliva, urine and faeces. Infectious agents also bind to soil and vegetation animals use, which makes it particularly tricky to eradicate.
The topic was discussed by Todd Whiklo, a wildlife ecologist for the grasslands ecoregion, at the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation’s Annual Convention in the city this week.
According to Whiklo, while the number of samples remains quite low, around 700 hunter-harvested samples were submitted in 2017, up from just under 400 in 2016. However, submissions are lacking across the province.
"We would like to see more samples across the province,” Whiklo said. “You do need about 300 samples from one area to get a really good understanding of what the prevalence of the disease is.”
To encourage hunters to submit harvested heads, enhanced communication efforts have been undertaken. As well, an online CWD submission website was launched where hunters can generate a tag online, track the process and see the results much quicker. There is no cost for testing and samples are accepted from any Wildlife Management Zone in the province to conservation offices.
While more heads are rolling in from the southwest segment of the province, this is credited to the regions familiarity with the disease, as the area is a CWD endemic zone, though it is not the only one in the province.
CWD is found across a large swath of south and central Saskatchewan, in part due to the high number of Mule deer populations. Around 12 per cent of samples have returned positive testing results. In some Wildlife Management Zones, the ministry found the rate of CWD in deer to be as high as 43 percent — but those zones also saw low testing participation.
“The difficulty that we have, is we have a lot of Wildlife Management Zones where we don’t even know if the disease is present there,” he said.
Whiklo said the numbers could be skewed somewhat, citing the high submissions of Mule deer heads, however, detection has increased over time, a fact mirrored in adjacent jurisdictions.
Reacting to the situation is difficult, according to Whiklo, as “once this disease is in a free-ranging herd, your options are very, very limited on what to do.”
Due to this, a CWD Wildlife Working Group was formed, assembled of various government agencies as well as stakeholder groups. In Colorado and Wyoming, where numerous CWD research studies have been conducted, empirical evidence has linked the whitetail and mule deer populations decline to the disease.
“We are going to try to layout the management options we have available to us and get conciseness before we do anything,” Whiklo said.
On Jan. 1, 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency changed their CWD control program, where only farms that are on a national voluntary CWD program will be quarantined, depopulated and compensated, according to a government website.
Although a human case of CWD has never been identified, hunters are encouraged not to eat or distribute for human consumption, the meat or other parts from animals that have not been tested, or that are found to be positive.
On Twitter: @JournoMarr
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