The federal government could face costly trade embargoes and health risks if it doesn’t contain a plague decimating wild deer populations, warn a group of scientists, agricultural economists and First Nations leaders.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and eight cabinet ministers, more than 30 experts and stakeholders called for urgent action to control the spread of chronic wasting disease. Evidence of the risks is “clear, compelling and uncontested,” the group warns.
The letter says the fatal neurological disease, which affects deer, moose, elk and other cervid species, continues to be spread to wild animals by the controversial practice of intensive deer farming.
“Official policy still allows translocation of live animals, products and equipment from cervid farms, movement of hunter carcasses and continued human exposure — in violation of basic principles of science, public trust and professional ethics,” the letter says.
The failure to act could lead to trade embargoes aimed at spreading the disease to other countries, the experts warn.
“The capacity to spread CWD to susceptible species of deer all over the world via agricultural crops has already resulted in trade actions,” the letter states. “On Oct. 24, 2018, Norway banned imports of hay or straw from any state or province with CWD.”
The letter warns that the Norwegian ban “could easily expand to other products and spread to other economic regions seeking not just to avoid the threats, but to leverage tens of billions of dollars per year in competitive advantage.”
The 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in Alberta cost Canadian producers $3 billion, and taxpayers more than $1.5 billion in subsidies.
The letter says chronic wasting disease poses a similar risk. It too is a prion disease. And the disease has repeatedly jumped species barriers and many strains have evolved, the letter notes.
The experts also warn the government about the risk to humans posed by the spread of the disease, which has been detected in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, 27 U.S. states and in South Korea, Norway and Finland.
In 2017 Health Canada advised that CWD has the potential to infect humans after studies on monkeys found they could be infected by eating meat contaminated with CWD.
The experts’ letter notes that as the disease spreads, “thousands of CWD-infected animals are being consumed by hunters and their families across North America every year.”
“Even a single transfer to a person — proving that humans are susceptible — would bring catastrophic consequences with limited options,” the experts warn.
The letter calls on the government to “develop a preparedness plan for the possible emergence of human CWD in Canada, including possible impacts to our blood supply.”
Darrel Rowledge, executive director of the Alliance for Public Wildlife, is one of those who signed the call to action.
“What will the consequences be if we get a single transmission of CWD to people?” he asked in a Tyee interview. “And how do we maintain confidence in our food supply?”
“Containment is key and the Canadian government is not doing that.”
Other signatories include UBC prion expert Dr. Neil Cashman, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, Chief Stanley Grier of the Piikani Nation and University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Richard Gray.
First Nations are concerned about the risks to health from eating venison and the threat to a traditional food supply.
“Studies in wild deer populations confirm severe impacts and possible extinctions that present catastrophic threats to Canada’s biodiversity, our economy, cultural identity and food security,” the letter warns.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency in 2001 over the disease. Researchers there recently warned that if government can’t halt the spread of CWD, the disease could lead to the extermination of wild deer populations.
Norway, which killed an entire herd of reindeer after detecting chronic wasting disease in several animals in 2016, now only accepts hay and straw from CWD-free zones.
Its ban is based on alarming new University of Texas research that showed that prions — the protein-based agents that cause CWD and similar diseases — can survive both on and in a half dozen agricultural crops, including wheat.
Prions have amazing properties and continue to confound scientists.
Once contaminated with saliva or urine from infected animals, materials including wood, rocks, plastic, glass, cement, stainless steel and aluminum can retain and release prions.
Hamsters housed with these contaminated materials have became infected with CWD and died. A 2018 University of Texas study reported, “Strikingly, most of the hamsters developed classical clinical signs of prion disease and typical disease-associated brain changes.”
The threat to wild deer populations has been well documented. One recent Wyoming study found that CWD killed 10 per cent of the wild deer population between 2003 and 2010. At that rate local populations could go extinct within 50 years, it concluded.
“The decline was caused directly by CWD lowering annual survival of female deer, which have the biggest impact on population growth rates,” said researcher David Edmunds. “This was because CWD-positive deer died both directly from the disease and were more likely to be killed by hunters.”
The plague is also growing and spreading.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment reported a substantial increase in the number of confirmed cases, particularly in central and southeastern parts of the province. The findings were based in deer heads sent to the ministry by hunters.
Researchers identified 349 positive cases in more than 2,000 submissions last year.
The Conservative governments of Ralph Klein and Grant Devine introduced chronic wasting disease to wild deer by promoting deer farming in the 1980s and 1990s. Infected deer escaped into the wild and spread the fatal brain wasting disease.
Both governments ignored the warning by scientists at the time.
There are no effective live animal tests, vaccines or cures for chronic wasting disease.