Many of us remember or have heard of the mad cow disease outbreak in the early 2000s and the resulting fallout from this bovine borne disease. A similar crisis threatens British Columbia’s ungulate populations. While the risk to humans is unknown, chronic wasting disease (CWD) presents a very real threat to the deer, elk, moose, and caribou that inhabit our province and other parts of North America.
The disease was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and has been slowly spreading northward since. It has been detected in animals in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Washington, and Montana. Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease, in that it attacks and degrades the brain of the affected animal. The disease can take several years for an animal to display signs which may include weight loss, poor coordination, stumbling, drooling, increased urination, and drinking. It is spread through infected urine, saliva, tissues, food, or water.
Along with the risk of infected free ranging ungulates entering the province from nearby areas, human activities also pose a risk of bringing chronic wasting disease to B.C. The disease can be introduced from contaminated feed, harvested animals, or deer scents. This is problematic because CWD can end up in an area where surveillance is currently low, and therefore may spread undetected.
In 2002, the B.C. government started a program to monitor CWD and no cases have been detected yet. This does not mean that we should not remain vigilant. If CWD were to infect ungulates in the province it could cause ever lasting damage to fragile populations such as the mountain caribou in southern B.C. The impacts of CWD could result in the loss of food sources for many subsistence hunters, including indigenous peoples. In addition, the loss of recreation opportunities related to hunting and sightseeing would have significant impacts on the B.C. economy.
The CWD monitoring program focuses on proactive management to reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease in the province, including public outreach to increase awareness and regulatory tools. Surveillance is important to prevent the spread of the disease, with early detection and response in the event a positive case is found. The government has improved their efforts to monitor high-risk areas, with a ten-fold increase in testing samples to confirm the status of the disease.
To protect ungulate populations in B.C. from CWD, prevention is key. Hunters across B.C. are asked to submit samples of their deer, elk, and moose heads for testing to help monitor for the disease. In 2021, the Kootenay and Peace regions were given hunting conditions to submit mule deer and white-tailed deer heads due to those regions’ proximity to infected areas. Even if hunters are out of mandatory testing zones, they should support the surveillance efforts of the CWD program by submitting samples, which is at no cost to them.
Hunters can find designated freezer locations to drop off samples in the Lower Mainland, Kootenay, Peace, and Thompson regions of BC. The BC Conservation Officer Service offices in Nelson, Castlegar and Grand Forks are the only designated drop off locations serving the West Kootenays. With the help of government ministries, hunters, naturalists, and the public we can keep chronic wasting disease out of B.C. and prevent our beloved wild antlered friends from facing a similar fate to cows during the mad cow disease outbreak.
Hannah Devereux-Dole and Richard Hilde-Radulovich are second year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Castlegar’s Selkirk College.