The Quebec government is banking on massive control of the province’s deer population to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, after its first case was detected at a game farm north of Montreal.
Updated October 4, 2018
The Quebec Ministry of Wildlife confirmed earlier this month that a fatal degenerative disease of the nervous system had been detected in a farmed deer, which was sent for slaughter in late August.
The disease causes a fatal infection of the central nervous system in deer, elk, reindeer and elk. It resembles mad cow disease in cattle.
Although the disease can remain undetected for years, it eventually leads to poor health, behavioral changes, disorientation, and death.
The recent finding is the first positive case of more than 22,000 samples tested in the province.
The news raised alarm with government officials, who banned hunting, trapping and off-road activities in an area of 400 km.two around the farm, which includes part of the Laurentians and Outaouais regions, north and west of Montreal.
On Thursday, they announced plans to cull between 300 and 350 deer to test for the disease.
Another strip of land has been declared a surveillance zone, where hunters are asked to send carcasses for testing and avoid removing parts of the deer from the area.
Donald Jean, a biologist at the ministry, told a news conference that the aim was to determine whether the disease is present in wild herds of deer and, if so, to eliminate it.
Wild populations under threat
Michel Baril, a biologist with the Federation of Hunters and Fishermen of Quebec, believes the highly contagious disease has the potential to decimate wild deer populations.
“We have no way of controlling this disease. If it enters the wild deer herd after that, there is no way to eradicate it. We lost control a little bit,” he said in a phone interview.
“We are at risk of losing a good part of our deer and elk populations. »
Mr. Baril believes the Wildlife Ministry is doing a “proper job” but criticizes the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which he says should do more to isolate the farm or determine the source of contamination.
He said authorities should continue to slaughter the animals until the source is discovered.
“To find the disease, you have to slaughter an animal, cut off its head and do analyzes on its brain,” he said.
“That’s what we stopped doing now in the red deer herd. »
According to the biologist, all livestock farms should be required to build a second corral to create a buffer zone between cultivated and wild populations.
A disease difficult to eradicate
Stephane Lair, a veterinarian with the Canadian Wildlife Health Network, says it’s possible the deer contracted the disease from another animal, including a bird, or even a human, that may have handled food.
According to him, the disease may have been present in Quebec for some time, but not very widespread.
The disease, first detected in the 1960s in the United States, is “almost impossible” to eradicate, according to Lair.
It is currently present in around 25 US states, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Quebec’s response plan is inspired by that of New York, which would be the only state to be able to eliminate the disease.
Optimism at CFIA
El Mehdi Haddou, a veterinarian at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), is optimistic that the infection was detected early enough to be contained.
A few dozen animals from the affected farm were tested in recent days and were all healthy. Fourteen specimens were the same age as the sick animal.
“By testing these animals, we know that the prevalence of the disease will be very low, because the animals that were most at risk of being infected were not,” he said.
He added that his agency and provincial agriculture ministries are still investigating and are ready to take further action, including culling the entire herd if necessary.
While there is currently no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans, Haddou said scientists are not ruling out the possibility.
For this reason, he said, hunters are advised not to eat deer that show symptoms of the disease, or at least have the carcass tested before consuming the meat.