An examination of animal heads submitted by hunters determines that the disease is spreading to new areas
A recent hunter surveillance program suggests the population of chronic wasting disease continues to rise and spread in Western Canada.
Trent Bollinger of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative said that of the 200 animal heads submitted for testing, 18 or about 10 percent tested positive for CWD.
While final numbers are still being calculated, Bollinger said 90 mule deer and 90 white-tailed deer were tested. The rest were elk and moose in equal proportions. The positive results appeared only in deer and primarily mule deer, he said.
“These are 200 samples spread all over Saskatchewan but it does appear to be increasing. What we had detected previously from the larger hunter surveillance programs in years past was a couple percent,” he said.
“We have four new wildlife management zones so it has spread to new areas in the province.”
However, Bollinger said the data in inconclusive because the free diagnostic program lacks enough funding to enable samples to be taken from specific areas and tracked over time.
“It’s imperfect information because there’s lack of funding to pursue this adequately, but the trend is that the prevalence is increasing, the geographic distribution is expanding into new areas and the effects on populations are unknown,” he said.
The disease first came to light in Saskatchewan in 1996 in a farmed elk. It was then found in a wild mule deer in 2000. Numbers kept rising and eventually spread into Alberta.
The Saskatchewan environment ministry implemented a free diagnostic program from 1997 to 2012. During that time cervid heads submitted by Saskatchewan hunters were tested and yielded data on about 45,000 animals.
Saskatchewan Agriculture started a scaled back program this fall.
“With the budget that has been provided, we can only test maybe 300 head. In years past, several thousand heads were tested from across the province per year,” he said.
“We need targeted surveillance to really try to understand the prevalence and change in prevalence over time and the distribution of this disease.”
Rising CWD numbers could hunting as it has in areas where the disease is established like Colorado, Wyoming and Wisconsin.
“Hunting opportunities are going to be reduced because of CWD and we currently have no clear cut method for managing it, or we’re not trying to manage it, or understand how we could manage it, and so it’s going to continue to spread and increase in prevalence.”
Bollinger said Saskatchewan Agriculture has indicated it will continue the program next fall at last year’s level of funding.