Wildlife conservation officials and hunter’s organizations in Ontario are trying to increase awareness about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and educate hunters about what they can do to prevent an outbreak in the province.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), and the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) hosted a CWD information session in Embrun on Sunday, October 28 at the Community Centre. About 20 people attended.
Keith Fowler, QDMA President for the Rideau-St. Lawrence area, said local hunters started asking questions about CWD once they heard of the outbreak nearby in Québec. QDMA is a not-for-profit organization of hunters who are involved with the management of sustainable whitetail deer populations.
Local gun hunting seasons for deer in Ontario begin on November 5, so getting the information out about CWD is a timely issue. “It’s usually one of the biggest hunts of the year,” said Fowler.
According to MNRF biologist Andrew Silver, once CWD is discovered in a place, “It’s virtually impossible to eradicate.” Traces of disease, in which attacks the brain tissue in cervids (deer, moose, elk), can remain in the area for a long period of time.
Silver explained how CWD cases are generally only found in older deer because it takes so long for symptoms to show up. A younger deer with the disease can appear to be perfectly healthy and without the emaciation and disorientation deer with CWD suffer.
Ontario’s approach is what the MNRF calls “risk-based.” Surveillance is done in selected areas each year and is based on hunters voluntarily allowing ministry staff to take samples for testing. Surveillance areas are chosen based on when they were last screened and the likelihood of CWD being found in that area. Two of the risk factors are the proximity to areas outside of Ontario and if there are domestic game farms in the area.
In 2018, the MNRF had been focusing its CWD surveillance on parts of southwestern Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula. However, when the first case was discovered in Québec in September, the Minister ordered additional surveillance in Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 65, which covers Prescott and Russell, and Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry counties.
Hunters in WMU 65 are encouraged to take their deer for testing at a series of depots that the MNRF has established. They are at Boucherie Menard in Hawkesbury, Vogel Meats in Green Valley, and Clement Meat Cutter in Casselman. At those locations, tissue samples from the heads of deer are sent away to a laboratory at the University of Guelph for testing. Hunters are given a card with an ID number for the specimen that they can later check online to see the results. The MNRF will also have crews out during the upcoming gun hunting season in WMU 65 to seek voluntary testing help from hunters.
Silver said it normally takes two to three weeks for test results to appear online, but if a deer were to test positive for CWD, the person who submitted the specimen would be notified much more quickly and the MNRF would begin immediate measures to contain the outbreak.
Chris Heydon, a Policy Analyst with the MNRF, explained how the department has been trying to stop CWD from entering Ontario since 2005. That year, importing parts of cervids such as internal organs and the spinal cord into Ontario was banned. In 2010, the government began requiring import permits for anyone bringing live deer or elk into Ontario. Also, in 2010, Ontario banned the use of substances containing the natural scent of deer for use by hunters to lure animals with. Heydon explained that was done because of the risk of products containing traces of CWD.
Silver and Heydon explained Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), is often confused with Chronic Wasting Disease because the deer exhibit similar symptoms. However, deer with EHD experience a rapid onset of the symptoms and die within eight to 36 hours while deer with CWD do not display symptoms for two to three years. EHD has spread into Ontario via a flying midge insect from the southern US.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) is cooperating with the MNRF’s surveillance program, but OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro said the organization has written the Ministers of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs asking for tighter regulation of domestic or wild cervids that are held in captivity, increased biosecurity on game farms, better action taken to deal with animals who escape from farms, and a phase-out of the deer-farming industry in Ontario over a five year period. “Surveillance is not prevention,” Munro said.
One of the questions from the audience in Embrun was what Ontario authorities would do if there was a CWD outbreak in the province. Silver said the response would be essentially the same as what Québec authorities have done involving control zones, deer culls, and testing.
CWD is very similar to Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease—or “Mad Cow Disease.” Another audience question was if humans can get it from eating CWD-infected deer meat. “We don’t know,” said Silver, and added that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health Canada have both said people should not eat meat from CWD-infected deer as a precaution. No human illnesses have been reported from CWD-contaminated meat, but researchers at a Canadian federal laboratory in Alberta did manage to infect monkeys with the disease.