Dene national chief calls for emergency meeting, fears fatal disease affect caribou

Norman Yakeleya is calling for an emergency meeting with the federal and territorial governments to discuss the threat of a deadly disease with the potential to decimate northern caribou herds.

Norman Yakeleya says chronic wasting disease threatens caribou and the Dene way of life

Norman Yakeleya believes if chronic wasting disease moves to caribou, it could have 'devastating impacts' on the Dene way of life. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya is calling for an emergency meeting with the federal and territorial governments to discuss the threat of a deadly disease with the potential to decimate northern caribou herds.

Chronic wasting disease "could cause devastating impacts to our way of life, because we heavily rely on caribou, moose, other animals, vegetation, as people of the land," said Yakeleya.

"We need a mandatory meeting because this is threatening our way of life as Dene people."

Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious and fatal disease known to affect deer, moose, elk and reindeer, according to the University of Alberta's Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases.

Chronic wasting disease has not been detected in caribou, but one researcher says that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It primarily affects the brain and causes the animal's body to deteriorate slowly until it dies.

The disease can be transmitted through exposure to infected animals, or through soil contaminated by bodily fluids.

Infected animals can carry the disease for several years without showing symptoms.

Caribou is our life.- Norman Yakeleya, Dene national chief

Chronic wasting disease was first recorded in the 1960s, in captive deer in Colorado and Wyoming. It has since migrated north, infecting animals in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The fear is that it could enter northern caribou populations, decimating herds with numbers that are already rapidly declining.

Not only are caribou a dietary staple, said Yakeleya, but they are an essential element of Dene life.

"Caribou is our life. Moose is our life. Plants are our life. The soil that we walk on, on the ground, is our way of life. So our way of life is being threatened," he said.

"I'm very serious as to let's this tackle this early. Let's have a discussion."

'Red alert' for Dene people

The national chief took time out of his Christmas holiday to issue a "red alert for the Dene people" over the threat of chronic wasting disease.

Yakeleya's call-out comes after the Dene Nation's director of lands and environment alerted him to a recent study out of the University of Alberta.

The November study suggests that humic acids in soil can reduce the infectivity of chronic wasting disease in the environment.

Judd Aiken, a University of Alberta professor and one of the study's authors, said scientists are still far away from a real-world application of their discovery, but the findings are "an important first step."

There has not yet been a reported case of chronic wasting disease in caribou, said Aiken, but Yakeleya has good reason to be concerned.

Disease 'very difficult' to kill

"We don't see any reason why this will not transmit [to caribou], and indeed it has, in a sense, to reindeer in Norway, which is the same species as caribou," Aiken said.

He said studies show deer populations in Wyoming are declining as a result of chronic wasting disease. There are areas in Wisconsin where over 50 per cent of the white-tailed deer bucks have been infected.

Aiken called the disease "iron-clad," because "it is very, very difficult to kill."

For this reason, said Aiken, hunters going into parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan where the disease is present should be aware.

"If you bring a carcass to a different area and deposit the carcass on the landscape, they're looking at that as a potential way the disease is moving," he said.

The Northwest Territories government actively monitors the presence of chronic wasting disease in neighbouring jurisdictions, says Meagan Wohlberg, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

New restrictions on the movement of live deer and deer parts from areas known to have the disease are being proposed under the Wildlife Act. They could go into effect in 2019.

In the meantime, Wohlberg said, Northwest Territories residents who hunt deer species in Alberta or Saskatchewan should have their animals tested in those provinces.

There has been no documented cases of chronic wasting disease being transmitted to humans, but Aiken said "the jury is out" on whether it could.

Chronic wasting disease has no known treatment or cure.