Recommendations fall short: bison producer

A Saskatchewan task force looking into malignant catarrhal fever didn’t go far enough with its recommendations, says a bison producer who has lost an animal to the disease.

Robert Johnson, who raises bison in southeastern Saskatchewan, has gone to court unsuccessfully to try to force the provincial Agricultural Operations Review Board to hear his concerns about an adjacent sheep farm.

Sheep carry the MCF virus but are not harmed by it and display no clinical signs. But the disease is fatal to bison, which are highly susceptible to it. There is no treatment or vaccine.

Johnson has said he would like to see a legislated buffer zone between sheep and bison of at least five kilometres. MCF is spread through the air. His bison pastures are within that distance from his neighbour’s sheep.

The pasture where the calf died is within one kilometre of the sheep.

“This is not a natural disease of bison and it is 100 percent preventable,” he said.

Wendy Wilkins, provincial disease surveillance veterinarian and a member of the task force, said there are one or two confirmed cases of MCF each year and sheep would be the culprit.

The fact Johnson lost a bison bull calf in December is unfortunate but within the norm, she said.

Between 1998 and 2011 there were 43 confirmed cases in the province; half of these were part of a November 2000 outbreak at an auction mart where bison and sheep were assembled in the same space one day apart. Although they were never in direct contact with each other they did share the air.

Wilkins said a buffer zone wouldn’t necessarily prevent future deaths.

The Rural Municipality of Brokenshell, in the Weyburn area, has passed a bylaw stating that bison and sheep are to be pastured a minimum of five km apart and the pasture established first takes precedence. Johnson said that could be a model for others.

The task force report made several recommendations, including the implementation of a provincial notifiable disease list that would include MCF, provincial support for research into causes of bison deaths when those bison are in varying degrees of proximity to sheep, education and awareness programs by both the bison and sheep producers’ associations and financial support from the province to develop biosecurity standards and best practices.

Agriculture minister Bob Bjornerud announced that $300,000 would be available to fund research projects on MCF. He also renewed the $50,000 annual funding to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Disease Investigation Unit for three more years.

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