Zombie deer disease found in Manitoba has Ontario hunters concerned for wildlife

November 6, 2021
Zombie deer disease found in Manitoba has Ontario hunters concerned for wildlife
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Some Ontario hunters are concerned after a deer in western Manitoba tested positive for chronic wasting disease, worrying that the fatal wildlife disease may eventually appear in their province too. 

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal brain disease in deer, elk and moose, and can make deer appear zombie-like in its final stages. It’s been discovered in four provinces: Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec.

Keith Munro, the wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the province’s largest hunting group, said Manitoba’s first case of chronic wasting disease on Nov. 1 was found despite tough control and reporting measures.

Keith Munro, wildlife biologist for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, helped organize a conference on chronic wasting disease in Mississauga in March 2019. (Submitted by Keith Munro/OFAH)

“For many years, Manitoba has kept [chronic wasting disease] out very successfully, and they’ve had a lot of really, really progressive methods for keeping it out,” said Munro.”They’ve been quite aggressive about it, which has been excellent, especially considering that some of the Saskatchewan cases have been literally on their border.”

It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms. It is fatal to animals and there are no treatments or vaccines.

It just seems like it’s closing in a little bit. – Tom Armstrong, hunter from Thunder Bay, Ont. 

There have been no reported cases of  infection in people, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 1997, the World Health Organization has stressed the importance of keeping the agents of diseases like chronic wasting disease from entering the human food chain.

Manitoba has implemented a ban on hunting deer, moose, caribou and elk in the area near where the single case was documented, Munro said. The boundaries of this area are being determined, but will include at least a portion of Game Hunting Area (GHA) 22, he said. 

Thunder Bay hunter Tom Armstrong says having a confirmed case of CWD in Manitoba brings chronic wasting disease ‘closer to home.’ (Tom Armstrong/Facebook)

Tom Armstrong is from Thunder Bay, Ont., and spends hours hunting deer in the bush outside the city. He is passionate about both deer and deer hunting, and moderates the Facebook group Northwestern Ontario Whitetail.

Armstrong said the recent news out of Manitoba got his attention.

“It is certainly worrisome. There have been some [chronic wasting disease cases] in Minnesota, but there hasn’t really been any to the west of us, so it just seems like it’s closing in a little bit.”

Armstrong said he hopes the case in Manitoba is isolated, and won’t prove to be an outbreak. He said while the human health concerns are of foremost concern, the spread of the disease could be devastating for Ontario’s deer population. 

John Kaplanis, executive director with the Northwestern Ontario Sportsmen’s Alliance, says hunters have a key role to play in monitoring and reporting potential cases of chronic wasting disease. (John Kaplanis/Facebook)

John Kaplanis, executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sportsman’s Alliance and a keen deer hunter, agrees Manitoba and Ontario have been doing a good job keeping the disease out, but said one of the major spreaders of chronic wasting disease remains largely unaddressed — game farms and zoos. 

Kaplanis also questioned Manitoba’s need for a hunting ban in a large area due to a single case of CWD. He said hunters can directly help game managers by monitoring and reporting.

“I would question the rationale for that measure because Ontario uses hunters as a key component — as a key contributor — to their ongoing chronic wasting disease surveillance programs.”

In a statement, the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry said it is committed to protecting wildlife. This fall, wildlife officers will canvas surveillance areas and visit hunters looking for tissue samples. 

Since 2002, more than 13,600 samples have been tested in the province, with none testing positive for chronic wasting disease, the statement said. 

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