Deer being culled by thousands in lower Laurentians to curb spread of chronic wasting disease

A decision to slaughter some 3,000 domestic deer in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge is being met with mixed emotions, as people worry the disease may have already spread beyond the infected animal discovered at a local breeding farm last month.

Fatal nervous system disease found in a single domesticated animal in September

While the disease hasn't been found to pose a threat to humans, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is recommending local hunters have the deer they kill tested. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

A mayor from a small town on the edge of the Laurentians​ says a decision to cull some 3,000 domestic deer in his area is being met with mixed emotions, as people worry the disease may have already spread beyond the infected animal discovered at a local breeding farm last month.

"I drive by there often, and the domestic deer are always in contact with the wild deer," Grenville-sur-la-Rouge Mayor Tom Arnold told CBC's Quebec AM. "There's no buffer zone that exists between the two."

That single deer — the first in the province — was discovered in mid-September at Harpur Farms, setting off a chain reaction all the way up to the federal level.

As health officials work to determine if the disease has, in fact, spread, the farm has been quarantined, hunting prohibited in the area until Nov. 18, and testing throughout the region has begun.

So far, no more deer, wild or domestic, have tested positive.

Some citizens support the cull, Arnold said, while others feel it is an extreme measure given that there are so many wild deer around the town, about 80 kilometres northwest of Montreal, that could be affected, as well. 

Arnold said people are concerned the problem will be around for years to come, in an area that's developed a local economy around deer farming and hunting.

While hunters are encouraged to monitor animals for signs of the disease, such as subtle head shivering or aggression, a research biologist at Université Laval, Prof. Jean-Pierre Tremblay, says the disease has an incubation period of up to five years. 

Quebec continues the cull, testing

Wildlife officers have already killed dozens of wild deer near Harpur Farms.

Deer that shared the pen with the infected animal have already been slaughtered, and the roughly 3,000 domestic deer on other farms in the region will be killed and tested in the coming weeks.

More than 20 centimetres of soil will have to be removed from some of the farmland, El Medhi Haddou, a veterinary officer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) told Radio-Canada. 

Ottawa will likely offer financial compensation to farmers who lose deer to the cull, he said.

Some 3,000 domestic deer are being culled from farms in the Grenville-sur-la-Rouge region, which is on the edge of the Laurentians and near the Outouais. (Google Map)

Officials will harvest 330 wild deer in what is called the "controlled intervention zone." That is more than the number that is usually hunted, according to Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks.

In total, 400 square kilometres straddling the Laurentians and Outaouais regions are affected by temporary measures, such as enhanced surveillance, and a ban on hunting and trapping.

Local hunters are being told they can either hunt in zones where hunting is allowed or get a refund on their licence.

No evidence of human transmission

There is no "direct scientific evidence" that suggests chronic wasting disease can be transmitted from cervids to humans, according to the CFIA website.

However, Haddou said, similar illnesses like mad cow disease have been known to spread to people. 

Along with testing any meat harvested near a known site of infection, the CFIA also recommends testing animals before preparing trophies or tanning hides.

The disease, which can incubate in deer, elk and wapiti for up to five years, starts with mobility issues and behavioural changes. It is always fatal. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks requires hunters who harvest a white-tailed deer or moose within the surveillance zone to visit a registration station in the hunting area where the animal was slaughtered. 

Ministry staff will take samples from the carcass and analyze them to determine if the animal is infected. Hunters are able to view test results as soon as they are available on the ministry's website.

If a sample is positive, the ministry will immediately notify the hunter.

Testing all game not possible, says Wildlife Ministry

On its website, Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks says not every hunter in the province will be able to have their game tested.

"Government efforts will be concentrated in an enhanced monitoring area where the risk of disease is greater," the site says.

Instead of having wild meat tested, the ministry recommends hunters minimize contact with the animal's brain, spinal cord and certain organs, and while avoid consuming certain parts of the animal.

The website also lists meat-handling recommendations and regulations. 

With files from Peter Tardif, Radio-Canada and CBC's Quebec AM

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