Calgary

Chronic wasting disease may be creeping into Alberta deer populations

Chronic wasting disease is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system that affects deer, elk, moose and caribou.

Provincial government experts keeping an eye on wildlife

Chronic wasting disease, also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system that affects deer, elk, moose and caribou. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

Some people are calling it zombie deer disease, and it's on the rise along the eastern side of the province, where it has affected mainly mule deer.

"We can trace it being probably introduced into Canada in Saskatchewan probably sometime in the 1980s or so, and it has just insidiously spread and increased since then," said Dr. Margo Pybus, a wildlife disease specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, who also runs the surveillance program for the disease.

Chronic wasting disease, also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system that affects deer, elk, moose and caribou.

It was first detected in Canada on an elk farm in Saskatchewan in 1996.

"For the most part, there isn't anything that you can see in an infected deer until the final stages of the disease, when they lose weight and go downhill quickly — and that's the chronic wasting part of it," Pybus told the Calgary Eyeopener. "There is nothing that you can see that would tell you they were infected."

At this time, there is no proven evidence that humans can contract chronic wasting disease from infected deer. But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website recommends that no one should eat the meat from an animal that is known to be infected, and hunters should take extra precautions when handling tissue.

"We've been doing surveillance on this disease for 20 years now and we know that it's occurring primarily in mule deer, some in white tailed, and we have one or two cases in elk or a moose," Pybus said, adding they don't know exactly how it is transmitted among animals.

"It's a slow, insidious disease, but over time this is going to have devastating effects on local populations," she said.

"We see pockets in our deer population. So it's not widely spread, it's not randomly spread. But in those local populations, this disease will kill far more animals than what the population can produce. So the population declines in those local areas. And as as it spreads and becomes more prevalent over wider areas, you have that effect over a larger area."

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