Manitoba seeks firm to build Dauphin lab to detect chronic wasting disease in deer

Manitoba Sustainable Development is trying to hire a company to build a health lab in Dauphin that would detect a harmful disease that's popped up in deer populations in other provinces.

Fatal neurological disease found in deer in other provinces can prompt culls

The province hopes to bolster its ability to test for chronic wasting disease in Manitoba deer by building a new lab in Dauphin. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

The Manitoba government is planning to build a health lab in Dauphin to detect a harmful disease in deer that experts belive will eventually arrive in the province.

Manitoba Sustainable Development posted a request for proposals online late last month to build the Dauphin Big Game Health Laboratory.

The province already has a lab in Dauphin as part of its disease surveillance programs, and chronic wasting disease is the main concern, a Sustainable Development spokesperson said.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease related to mad cow disease and there's no known cure.

The province has extended the surveillance zone for the disease, in which hunters are required to submit heads of their kills for analysis. The province anticipates a rise in samples, the provincial spokesperson said.

'Zombie deer'

Late-stage symptoms of the disease in elk, moose, caribou and deer include excessive drooling, salivating and urinating, and an inability to hold their heads up.

"Some people have come up with the brilliant name of calling them zombie deer," said Brian Kotak, managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

The disease has been found in some provinces and U.S. states but not Manitoba.

There have been cases documented in Saskatchewan, and the latest scare, confirmed last month, stemmed from a white-tailed deer farm in Alberta.

A growing body of research suggests the diseased proteins found in deer infected with chronic wasting disease may impact human health when consumed, Kotak said.

That's one reason he's pleased the province is working to build a lab.

"That's fantastic news and really proactive on their part," he said.

Hunters, conservationists and wildlife managers share similar concerns about chronic wasting disease.

Once it's detected in a deer, the general approach is to cull the entire local population in hopes of stemming the spread.

Hunters must turn in samples in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Yukon, and it's voluntary in all other provinces, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said.

Samples sent out-of-province

The surveillance area in Manitoba includes all the game hunting zones in western Manitoba from about The Pas south to the Canada-U.S. border, Kotak said.

The current lab in Dauphin isn't equipped to do all the tests for chronic wasting disease on site, so they have to send certain samples away for further review, he said.

That's time-consuming and inefficient, Kotak said, and a bigger lab will boost Manitoba's ability to complete the proper tests.

Thousands of samples sent to the province by hunters for years haven't turned up positive for chronic wasting disease, but some cases have been detected just a few kilometres west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, he said.

A report from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative includes a map of confirmed chronic wasting disease cases in Saskatchewan from 2000 to 2018. (Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

"Given that wildlife move around a lot, we wouldn't be surprised at all if it is detected in Manitoba eventually."

The key thing for the wildlife federation continues to be to collaborate with the province to craft proper regulations to limit the transportation of diseased deer meat and to push for tighter controls on game ranches in Manitoba, he said.

Hard-line stance

The only such ranches in Manitoba are restricted to elk, Kotak said, and the wildlife federation is against game ranching as a rule.

"Game ranching of wild cervids [the deer family] doesn't have a place in our society."

One reason for the hard-line stance against game ranches relates to worries about meat exports. Recent cases of diseased deer meat shipped from ranches in Quebec and Alberta present a public health concern, Kotak said.

The province has an emergency response plan in place in the event chronic wasting disease does show up in Manitoba, he said.

The Manitoba Wildlife Federation has made more than 30 other recommendations Kotak would like to see the province adopt to further ensure Manitoba is ready to tackle chronic wasting disease when it arrives.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Cory Funk


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