The Ministry of Environment is asking hunters to submit the heads of deer, moose and elk harvested this hunting season for chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing.
CWD is a fatal, infectious central nervous system disease affecting mammals in the deer family that has no known cure. It may or may not be able to spread among humans.
“It is possible and plausible although very low that CWD could transmit to humans. So far we have not seen that but of course we are taking precautionary measures to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Terrestrial Biologist Rick Espie told the Prince Albert Daily Herald.
Although no human case of CWD has ever been identified, the province recommends that hunters avoid eating the meat until they receive their test results.
“A good safe rule of thumb is to not consume an animal until you’ve had it tested and not to consume it until you get those test results back. If it turns out to be positive the best measure is to not consume that animal but to dispose of it at a landfill,” Espie said.
He said despite the low risk at the moment, we can’t be too careful and compared the phenomenon to mad cow disease where a rare variant was able to infect humans.
“Of the millions of people in the U.K. who ate potentially infected meat a very small number of them became infected with a form of mad cow disease,” Espie said.
Hunters are strongly urged not to eat, or distribute for human consumption, the meat or other parts from animals that are found to be CWD-positive.
“Even though the risks are very low, they’re probably not zero so you want to minimize that risk by not consuming positive animals,” Espie said.
Hunters from anywhere in the province can submit heads for testing but specimens from along the edge of the boreal forest are of particular interest to scientists this year as the disease continues to spread among animals in the wild.
The disease was first detected in Saskatchewan in 1996, among farmed elk in the southwest and made its way into the wild mule deer population around the year 2000.
It is now found in deer, elk and moose in 55 of Saskatchewan’s 83 wildlife management zones (WMZ).
“It has expanded out north and eastward from that year by year and so we’re trying to gauge exactly how far it’s gotten and at what level it’s at the forefront of its expansion,” Espie said.
The disease can spread through animal contact or from contaminated feed, urine or feces and is able to exist in the environment for a long period of time.
Espie said as the disease progresses and animals become more infected, it starts to manifest itself outwardly and you can see that there’s something wrong. But during the early incubation period they can still spread the disease.
“It’s not very fast acting so it takes the disease quite a long time to incubate in the animal and you can’t really tell whether or not they’re infected in the early stages,” Espie said.
“In the later stages they become quite run down, maybe lose their fear of humans, become emaciated and eventually die but earlier on they look very healthy and normal.”
He said that for reasons as yet unknown, CWD hasn’t made it into the boreal forest itself, but that knowing if the disease is prevalent along the “boreal fringe” can help inform preventative measures that can be taken to stop it from spreading further.
Submissions from WMZs 50 (around Meadow Lake) and 55 (north of Prince Albert) will help scientists evaluate risk in woodland caribou habitat in the boreal forest.
Hunters in wildlife management zones near Yorkton in the east and Swift Current in the south are asked to submit mule deer and white-tailed deer heads for testing.
“We’re looking to have hunters from those zones in particular submit deer, elk and moose heads for testing. We’re trying to get as many samples as we can from those areas,” Espie said. “Of course we’re trying to manage and monitor the disease. The only way we can do that is when hunters submit heads for testing. We can then determine whether an animal has CWD.”
He noted that at this time, only Indigenous people can hunt woodland caribou, which are also eligible for testing.
The ministry is hoping to collect at least 300 samples in each of these targeted zones but testing is available for all cervid species harvested in any WMZ in the province.
“Last year, hunters submitted more than 3,300 heads for CWD testing,” Environment Minister Dustin Duncan said.
“Their continued support of the CWD surveillance program is invaluable in helping us understand how this disease spreads, and for evaluating potential population impacts. This in turn will guide the province in developing disease management plans.”
One way that hunters can help reduce the spread of CWD to new areas of the province is by properly disposing of animal carcass waste.
“If you have an infected carcass with CWD by leaving that on the landscape or by moving it around between zones it could increase the spread of the disease,” Espie said.
In areas where CWD has been detected, hunters are being asked to quarter the animal in the field instead of transporting it from the area where it was taken.
“With the help of hunters, the ministry has been monitoring the spread and intensity of CWD for more than 20 years,” Duncan said.
“We appreciate their support and want to continue working together to better understand and address this wildlife disease.”
Prior to dropping off heads, you need to get your CWD Tracking Number from the cwdsk.ca website and keep that number with you.
With hunting season winding down, hunters are reminded to get their animals tested. Heads can be submitted for testing at a number of designated drop-off locations across the province. The testing is free of charge and the ministry does not reimburse hunters on their licenses should the meat turn out to be contaminated.