Nova Scotia

Municipal hunt gives researchers rare chance to study Truro deer

Deer killed during Truro's nuisance deer hunt are helping university researchers learn more about the animals, including whether they’ve contracted COVID-19. 

Team from Dalhousie's agricultural campus swabbing for COVID-19, other pathogens

The municipal deer hunt in Truro, N.S., is expected to continue until mid-February. (Karen Messier)

Deer killed during a small Nova Scotia town's nuisance deer hunt are helping university researchers learn more about the animals, including whether they've contracted COVID-19. 

The deer carcasses are being swabbed for the virus. Tests are sent to a national research team that's tracking cases among Canada's white tail deer, said Sarah Stewart-Clark, an associate professor at Dalhousie University's agricultural campus in Truro.

"There's been no evidence of transfer of COVID-19 from deer to people, but it's looking at the wildlife populations that might be impacted by this virus," she said. 

Stewart-Clark said researchers have received about 10 deer thanks to Truro's hunt, which municipal officials believe is the first of its kind in Canada.

Four crossbow hunters have been hired to kill up to 20 deer inside town limits in an effort to control what the town says is an unmanageable population. The hunt began in mid-January and is expected to continue for a couple more weeks.

Sara Stewart-Clark is a an associate professor in the department of animal science and aquaculture at Dalhousie University's agricultural campus. (CBC)

Dalhousie's agricultural campus is storing the animal carcasses in fridges and analyzing the deer's digestive tracts, looking for pathogens to determine the overall health of the species.

The meat will be donated to Feed Nova Scotia and the hides will go to Millbrook First Nation.

For Stewart-Clark and colleagues Fraser Clark and Lori Parsons, it's a rare opportunity to have access to a species they don't usually get to study up close. 

"To assess these deer otherwise, we would have to rely on individual hunters to be willing to make that investment of transporting organs to us … in a short enough time frame that we'd be able to assess them," she said.

Stewart-Clark said this kind of wildlife research is especially needed as climate change forces more southern pathogens, such as Lyme disease, to travel further north into Nova Scotia. 

She said understanding what pathogens "are in our wildlife" can help researchers prepare for the prospect of future disease outbreaks in the region.

Harsh weather helping hunt

Mike Dolter, Truro's CAO, said he understands people who might be sceptical of the hunt, but he's confident it will help in the long run. 

"We would agree that a hunt in a single year is going to be totally ineffective … but over a number of years, if we continue the hunt, we do think we're going to get down to a level where it's going to be acceptable to the residents," he told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week. 

Dolter said the hunters have had to deal with rough weather, but that the snow also means that "nature will take its course."

An educational campaign to discourage people from feeding the deer has not been working so town staff are stepping up their efforts. (CBC)

"Those [deer] that can't survive from foraging because of the snow …  they may not survive through the winter, which is how things should be," he said. 

The town is also stepping up its education campaign by handing out pamphlets and posting notices on social media, trying to convince people that it's not a good idea to feed the deer.

Residents who still don't comply could face a $200 ticket.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet