Ministry calls for hunter participation in head program

By Bryan Eneas
November 3, 2016 - 5:41pm

This is the first part in a three part series paNOW will be producing looking into Chronic Wasting Disease in the province of Saskatchewan.

With white-tailed deer hunting season about to open, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment is encouraging hunters to do their part to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).  

CWD has done its damage throughout Saskatchewan for many years.

has been monitoring cases in the province since 1997, and is once again putting a call out to hunters to submit the heads of their kills to be tested.

“The help from hunters is extremely important for us to monitor the health of our wildlife,” Katherine Mehl, of the Ministry said. “We’ve reinstated the head testing program, so CWD head testing program was on last year, and it`s back again this year.”

Hunters can bring heads to the nearest conservation field office. A tag with an identification number will then be given and hunters can check their test results online.

Zone 13, roughly south of Swift Current and Zone 50 near Nipawin are two areas the ministry is highlighting in its efforts.

“We’re targeting those zones because those are areas where we know what the prevalence was in the past,” Mehl explained. “It was relatively low at the time, but we currently have no information on how high that is in the population.”

According to Mehl, CWD has previously been found in mule and white-tailed deer, as well as elk and moose. Although caribou can also be affected, Mehl said no samples have been sent in for testing.

“The prevalence is higher in mule deer, about twice as high as it is in white-tailed deer,” Mehl said. “In white-tailed deer the prevalence is about twice as high as it is in elk, and again from (elk) to moose.”

Mehl said the ministry was unaware of how those statistics translate into the caribou populations in the province due to a lack of testing. She said there haven’t been incidents where caribou have been found dead to test, either.

She explained it is hard to determine what the distribution of CWD is throughout the province due to low submissions to the head testing program.

Last year, 202 heads were submitted for testing, yielding 19 positive tests. The ministry also participates in diagnostic testing where conservation officers collect samples from sick or dead animals believed to be carrying the disease. Forty-three diagnostic tests yielded seven positive tests.

CWD was found in four new zones last year, according to Mehl. Zone 2 west, around Shaunovan, zone 18, south of Regina, zone 21, north of Regina, and zone 23 which connects the western zones affected by CWD and the zones around Regina.

Mehl said this year, only 14 samples have been sent in.

The ministry is continuing to work with the Canadian Wildlife Co-operative, and the University of Saskatchewan to understand the current information and how it has changed over the years.

“Once it’s there, we don’t know how long it stays in the environment,” Mehl said of CWD. “Anywhere the disease is, it can have an opportunity to sort of take hold in the soils, stay there and be quite persistent for a long time.”

In a press release from the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF), executive director Darrell Crabbe urged hunters to participate in the program.

“This disease isn’t something that hunters can easily detect in an animal themselves,” Crabbe said. “They need to submit the heads for testing, and we can’t stress enough the importance of this, as this disease will have permanent and devastating effects on our wildlife.”

Turning in heads gives validity to scientific research, argues Crabbe.

“That’s the primary goal, to increase the numbers of heads that are turned in so we can look at and try to determine really just where in Saskatchewan the disease is prevalent and what that prevalence rate is at,” Crabbe said. “It’s about developing protocols so we can move ahead and try to control this unfortunate disease.”

Going forward, the goal is to mitigate and control the disease.  

“If the prevalence rate is low enough we can possibly still get in front of this issue and maybe try to clean up this disease,” Crabbe said.

Hunters can help slow the spread of CWD by not introducing the disease to new areas of the province. Leaving gut piles on site and properly disposing of carcasses and meat from CWD-infected animals are recommended.

CWD is not a living organism, it is caused by a protein in the affected animal’s body. It is spread through saliva, urine and feces, and often binds to soil, drinking water and vegetation which the animals rely on.

CWD is a disease that affects the nervous system of deer, elk and moose, and while infected animals may appear healthy for more than a year before signs appear, it is a fatal disease for these animals.


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