Will wildlife management principles
now be based on disease control?

He believed one day higher government officials would recognise that the value of wildlife to Canadians far surpasses that of many other social interests. This fact has already been shown in studies but has never been readily accepted. It is difficult to understand that while the percentage of consumptive users of wildlife, such as hunters and trappers, is diminishing somewhat, the percentage of non-consumptive users is growing even more rapidly. Ever run across anyone with no opinion on wildlife?

He thought that campaign managers and political advisors would eventually remove their heads from the sand and recognise that taking a position in support of wildlife must be a key objective in seeking societal approval. Or, he mused, they would become extirpated, as would the losing candidates they backed in any election.

He thought it would only be a matter of time before the fabricators of political decisions would be weeded out in this fashion, while the mountain of issues surrounding fish and wildlife grew steadily. So when would it be time for the world in general and politicians in particular to step up to the plate? He could come to only one conclusion. It was evident that when a wildlife crisis of insurmountable proportions loomed, that would be the time.

Step by Step

We enjoy the benefits of having foreseen many threats to our wildlife, and we have done something about it. These threats are numerous. Early in Alberta's history the first threat was over-exploitation, characterised by uncontrolled hunting, trapping and trafficking. In order to promote the conservation of wildlife populations, these activities have been addressed in law for generations.

Many successes document the rewards reaped by these efforts. One of the most notable was the return of elk, believed to be extinct in Alberta by about 1912. This animal is now numerous in many parts of the province, with a population estimate of 26,000. Early in the twentieth century, pronghorn antelope were believed at one point to number only 13,000 on the continent. Now they number about one million. Although many would hardly believe it today, beaver populations in Alberta were nearly decimated at times as well. They are now regular nuisances in many parts of Alberta. There are many similar success stories.

And what of wildlife habitat? This has been altered dramatically, primarily by the incursions of agricultural and industrial development, to the detriment of many species in local areas. Pollution can still be a significant factor but this has been curbed to a degree by regulation. Meanwhile, there are many programs to conserve and improve these habitats. Approvals for new industrial developments are increasingly tied to minimising the impact to ecosystems in general. Are these measures enough? I do not know.

What about other threats?

In order to protect wildlife in the long term, it is necessary to ward off threats that have not yet materialised, including the introduction of wildlife diseases, foreign parasites and genetic contamination. The introduction of harmful exotic species into the province that could infest our ecosystems has also been deterred. How, you ask? By regulating the importation and possession of live wildlife and controlled animal species. Each application to import a live animal of any of these species is reviewed independently and health certificates are required. The purpose of the importation, along with the authority to possess the animals, is considered. An acceptable purpose for an import permit might be to import a specimen to an existing permit-holder's premises, such as a recognised zoo or research facility. An unacceptable purpose would be to merely possess an animal as a pet.

In 1988, amid fears of meningeal worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis), the importation of live animals of the deer family into Alberta were banned by the establishment of a moratorium against the importation of ungulates.

The meningeal worm lives largely in white-tailed deer, the normal host for this parasite, and is prevalent in deer on the eastern side of the continent. Intermediate stages of its life cycle involve snails or slugs. The bodies of white-tailed deer have adapted to the parasites so they do very little damage to a host of that species. This was not necessarily the case if the worm was picked up by other species, such as mule deer, moose, caribou and sometimes elk, none of which have been regular hosts. P. tenuis tends to travel in more irregular ways through hosts of these species, leading to severe damage to nerve or brain tissues, which explains why P. tenuis is referred to as "brainworm" An infested host of these other species can exhibit behaviour typical of nerve and brain damage, such as losing control of movement, running in circles and crashing into objects in its path. These behaviours and paralysis are commonly be followed by death.

Then there are a host of muscle worms and liver flukes... and those may yet be another story.

Other concerns have involved genetic contamination, where interbreeding - hybridisation - between introduced specimens and native wildlife can occur. Serious efforts have been undertaken to prevent the mixing of European red deer and elk on game animal production farms in Alberta for this reason. These animals can freely interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

We have all known of the disastrous results of tuberculosis outbreaks in farmed animals, both bovines and ungulates. Suffice to say that TB monitoring is routine and this is a federally controlled and reportable disease. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the control of such reportable diseases. In the aftermath of TB outbreaks, they have since monitored and controlled the transport of live farmed cervids in Canada.

The examples of concerns noted in this article comprise only a few from a veritable shopping list of potential threats to free ranging wildlife. Notwithstanding this, perhaps the efforts extended so far have been highly successful, as we have not had an outbreak of brainworm or any verified cases of TB in wild animals (except bison). TB outbreaks in captive animals have so far been brought under control. Nor have we subjected our wildlife to genetic contamination, or at least to any that has had any noticeable effect. Have introduced parasites had noticeable effect to date? Nothing to report so far. But then there are those undesirable alien species. There are not too many around (disregarding European starlings and house sparrows, of course). Oops! Wild boar anyone?

So when does an actual crisis loom?

In short, the answer is now. In March of 2002, Alberta became another jurisdiction where the presence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been confirmed, in this case, in farmed elk. By the time you read this, we should know more of the effect of this discovery. This insidious disease is incredibly scary, primarily because no one knows nearly enough about it. If it becomes established in wild deer or elk, evidence from elsewhere shows that it cannot be controlled. We are familiar with the two cases confirmed in wild mule deer in Saskatchewan, in addition to the huge outbreak in captive deer and elk on farms in that province. Culling of captive deer and elk in Saskatchewan has now resulted in the destruction of around 7,500 in attempts to stem the outbreak.

I just read that Wisconsin has detected three cases in wild white-tailed deer taken by hunters, the first reported cases in free-ranging deer or elk east of the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has reported finding CWD in a confined white-tailed deer herd in northwest Nebraska, with close to half the deer from inside the facility testing positive. Free-ranging deer sampled within a 10-mile radius are testing CWD positive at a rate of from 3.4 per cent to 6.8 per cent. This report from Nebraska contains a viewpoint that white-tailed deer may spread this disease faster than mule deer or elk, something I have not heard before. It is believed that whitetails outside the facility in question were infected through nose-to-nose contact with captive deer through the fence. Nebraska now fears the state's entire white-tailed deer herd is at risk of being infected.

The state of Colorado reports that 19 other states have been the recipients of animals from CWD-positive herds in captivity in Colorado. Their data indicates that 262 Colorado animals have been traced from these infected herds as having been transferred to those other states.

Evidence from Colorado and Wyoming where CWD has been most prevalent indicates that this disease cannot practically be removed from wild populations of deer and elk. Most frightening is that experiments have proven that facilities where outbreaks have occurred continue to harbour this disease. One facility that held CWD positive animals had all the animals removed and was thoroughly disinfected, including scrubbing corrals and tilling and spraying the soil with disinfectant, but healthy animals later placed in it still became CWD-positive. Now just what do you do about that state of affairs?

A review of websites indicates that all states and provinces where CWD has occurred are undertaking a continuation of plans for more testing (culling) of wild animals with the objective of limiting CWD outbreaks. Alberta did this in the spring of 2001 near the Saskatchewan border, as did Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan will continue to cull this spring as well. From the latest discovery of CWD now in Alberta, we can expect that we will now follow a road of managing this disease as best we can. We may have lost the luxury of managing deer and elk for any other purpose.

So now to the question of opening the door to creating, as the industry would call them, Cervid Harvesting Preserves. Who will step up to the plate in this, the ninth inning for Alberta?

Pat Dunford is a member of the Conservation Officers Association of Alberta in Edmonton