Documents reveal government struggled with hunter surveillance program
Mule deer bucks Photograph by: Bruce Edwards, The Journal, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON — The Alberta government is expanding its hunter surveillance program for chronic wasting disease, as positive deer continue to turn up in an increasingly larger area.
An additional seven wildlife management units were added to the list this year, bringing the total to 26. Hunters must turn in the heads of any deer killed in this area for testing. The area began by hugging the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, but has since expanded west and south.
Tests caught 75 positive cases among the thousands of mule and white-tailed deer turned in so far. The first positive case was in an emaciated mule deer found in 2005 in a farmyard about 30 kilometres southeast of Oyen. (To view a map showing all positive cases, go to www.srd.alberta.ca/BioDiversityStewardship/WildlifeDiseases/ChronicWastingDisease/CWDUpdates/documents/CWD-PositiveMap-Apr-2010.pdf)
The disease is thought to have spread from positive cases in Saskatchewan.
CWD is caused by a prion, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that causes deer to slowly waste away. There is no evidence that the disease in its current form can infect humans, though some recent research out of the United States suggests that if it adapted the strain could infect humans. The World Health Organization recommends a precautionary approach and recommends any animal product known to be infected with any prion disease not be consumed by humans.
“The disease appears to be spreading and new outlier cases were detected north of Jenner and northwest of Elkwater,” say documents obtained by The Journal from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The documents reveal that, as the hunter surveillance program expanded, the ministry struggled to keep up with the testing and reporting of results back to hunters. One hunter complained about how long it took to get test results.
A briefing note to the minister and deputy minister explained that, “There are fewer wage staff working on the CWD program because of the Government of Alberta hiring freeze. This resulted in slower testing and reporting this year. It also amplified some weaknesses in the CWD data management process.
“The current process for tracking and managing data associated with hunter-killed deer was originally set up as an ad hoc means when fewer than 1,000 heads were collected per year. The program has expanded to encompass 4,000 to 5,000 heads. The system is inadequate to handle that volume. The process is extremely labour-intensive and there are many places where files or data are handled manually.”
In the case of the hunter who complained, they didn’t have contact information for that person. But in general, it did take longer to get information out to hunters last season, acknowledged Darcy Whiteside, a ministry spokesman. This year they have instituted a bar code system that will track animals through the process from the time a head is turned in, on through the lab to the blood sample and test result.
The government is allowing increased hunting opportunities in areas where CWD has been found. But they are not resurrecting more aggressive, government-run winter control programs from previous years, which were regarded by experts as the only hope for preventing the disease from spreading.
One of the experts who lauded that program was Dr. Michael Miller, a wildlife veterinarian with the Colorado Division of Wildlife who has published numerous scientific studies on the disease.
“What we’ve seen thus far is simply relying on hunters is not going to be sufficient because it’s just not possible to get hunters to voluntarily apply sufficient pressure in some of these places,” he said.
The current government program is criticized by Quentin Bochar, president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, as being too weak. He said the government should have kept its requirement that hunters take two females before they can get a tag to harvest a male. If the goal is to reduce the population in infected areas, that’s what needs to be done, he said.
David Coltman, a University of Alberta biology professor, is winding down a research program on CWD in deer in Alberta. Using collaring and monitoring of animals, in addition to genetic work, he and his team discovered that deer move a lot and in all directions and that none of the Alberta populations have any natural resistance to the disease.
“Basically, (CWD) is gradually going to creep in all directions,” he said.
Miller said diseased deer have turned up in cities in Colorado and they will turn up in Edmonton and Calgary at some point, with Calgary likely to be first.
“At the end of the day this is something Albertans have to decide for themselves, in terms of what price they want to pay and how important it is to try to eliminate this.”
By Hanneke Brooymans, edmontonjournal.com
September 10, 2010
Source: The Vancouver Sun