Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a complex disease that kills white tail deer, mule deer, moose, and elk in North America.
It is not recommended that hunters consume meat that has been affected by CWD. This is why the provincial government and the Golden District Rod and Gun Club have come together to help detect the disease before it comes to British Columbia. Hunters can voluntarily bring the head of their kill to the Rod and Gun Club, where it will be sent off for testing. Hunters can receive their prize back if they like to keep the antlers, or mount.
CWD is contagious. If an infected animal crosses paths with other animals, it can pass on the fatal disease through grass and other foliage. The disease is cause by an abnormal protein called a prion. The prion is long lasting, doesn’t break down, and is resistant to heat. They build up in the body, especially in the brain tissue and central nervous system. CWD is a degenerative neuro disease that is always fatal to the animals it affects.
“You can’t see it. The only way to diagnose the disease is actually looking at the brain tissue or lymphnode tissue under a microscope,” said B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources wildlife health biologist Cait Nelson.
The B.C. Wildlife Health Program has been surveilling for CWD since 2002, and it has not been detected in British Columbia yet, although it has been found at the borders of the province in the United States and Alberta.
“With this increased risk, it was critical that we had a sample size that was large enough to give us confidence in the results,” Nelson said, adding that surveillance has been based on voluntary submissions. “Surveillance is also critical in detecting the disease early in case it does show up.”
Infected animals can take from several months to two years before they show visible signs of CWD.
“Most of the animals that test positive for CWD are in fact healthy looking hunter harvested animals,” Nelson said.
At later stages of the disease, animals may show signs of extreme weight loss, stumbling, and poor coordination as the brain starts to malfunction.
“As far as we know, there’s no evidence that humans can get it. There’s never been a human case of CWD,” Nelson said, adding that even still, meat from those animals should not be eaten. “The health authorities across the board recommend a precautionary approach.”
In the Golden area, submitting samples is not mandatory, but in seven management areas, it is. The Kootenay region is considered a high priority for testing by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources due to its proximity to the United States and Alberta.
“We work really hard to educate people on the disease, particularly the risk factors on how it might enter the province,” Nelson said. “The number one way it might enter the province isn’t by natural animal movement.”
The unintentional import of an infected animal is the most likely way the diease could spread to B.C. If parts of the carcass or some of the tissue end up in the environment, prions can end up in the soil and remain in the environment.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources is working with stakeholder groups to facilitate the education and testing program for CWD.
“I think that collaborating approach has really translated into an effective program,” Nelson said. “We’re sitting at a table with our partners, and we will be figuring it out together.”
For more information about Chronic Wasting Disease, visit www.gov.bc.ca/chronicwastingdisease.
To submit a sample, contact Roy Pagliaro at 250-344-5737 or 250–9024.