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 with Rob Miskosky

Could Help Be On The Way?

I have long written about the dangers of chronic wasting disease within the pages of this magazine and the threat it poses to our deer and elk herds.

Moose aren’t safe either; in November of 2012, a southern Alberta road-killed moose tested positive for CWD. Thankfully, it’s the only one we know of to date.

In Alberta, CWD-endemic areas continue to expand west and north, as shown by the CWD Positive Map ( that lists the 2016 WMUs of Special Concern, which includes WMUs 206, 208, 228, 240, 242 and 252, with 242 and 252 being on Edmonton’s doorstep.

As chronic wasting disease continues to move rapidly west, British Columbia is becoming increasingly concerned that the deadly disease might find its way into BC wildlife.
However, because of CWD’s long incubation period and the migratory nature of deer, the leading edge of CWD may well be further than the WMUs of Special Concern. We really aren’t sure exactly where or how far it has spread. One thing we do know for certain though is that it is on the move and has been since public pressure stopped the deer cull that many feel should never have ended. However, politicians bend easy and seldom stand straight when public pressure comes calling.

CWD control in Alberta is now merely a surveillance program utilizing hunter-killed deer as the catalyst.

And there is no control over where the remains of those hunter-killed deer that test positive end up, whether it be landfills or merely discarded back to the land, furthering the potential spread of CWD in the wild.

Just Google chronic wasting disease and the resulting headlines are disturbing at best, including the continuation of CWD being found on game farms, with the two most recent being in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Alberta’s last CWD-positive game farm was an elk farm at an undisclosed location in 2015.

It is believed that in some areas of Saskatchewan, as high as 25 percent of the deer are infected with the disease that continues to march westward... and to the north, which has many concerned for our struggling caribou herds. CWD has been found in reindeer in Norway, so clearly our caribou are also at risk.

But help may be on the way.

Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization funded by the Government of Canada who “act as a catalyst for developing and applying genomics+ and genomic-based technologies to create economic and social benefits for Canadians.”

Genomics involves the study of the entire genetic information of living things encoded in their DNA and related molecules, such as RNA and proteins. Okay, stuff way over my head so I certainly won’t try to explain it here, even if I could.

Genome Canada recently announced that $11.5-million has been granted to the University of Alberta for a genetic study that will focus on chronic wasting disease.

Like mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that affect humans, a misfolded protein known as a prion causes chronic wasting disease. One misfolded prion can cause normal proteins to change into prions. This is what causes the brains of infected animals to have a microscopic sponge-like appearance.

The only way to test an animal for prions is if it is dead. The U of A hopes to develop a test for prions in live deer, which would allow for early detection and help in the prevention of the spread of the disease.

I have tried to contact Dr. Debbie McKenzie, a biologist and co-leader of the project at the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases at the U of A without luck. If they do develop a test for live deer, I would like to know how it would be administered to live “wild” deer and elk, or would it just be available for farmed cervids? If such is the case, my concern then becomes that such a test would just further entrench the game farming industry while doing little for our wild deer and elk herds.

While there is little chance of CWD infecting humans, there is still that chance. Should this happen, the previous deer cull would look insignificant compared to what would become a gunship war on our wild deer and elk herds.

If I hear back from Dr. McKenzie, I will report back here. ■

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