The spread of lethal chronic-wasting disease to a third species of wildlife in Canada has scientists calling for a wide-ranging inquiry into elk- and deer-farming industry.
The highly contagious so-called mad-elk disease was found last week in a white-tailed deer on an Alberta game farm. Over the past two years, it has been confirmed in 230 elk on 40 farms in Saskatchewan, and in four wild mule deer in Saskatchewan, said George Luterbach of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Scientists fear that the fatal brain disease is poised to spread into more domesticated herds and wild populations of elk and deer, as it has in parts of the United States, where a state of emergency has been declared.
Several criminal investigations in North America into the trading of game-farm elk and deer have heightened concern among scientists that illegal trading of the animals has taken place, possibly on a large scale over a long time.
When records are missing, it is difficult for enforcement officers to trace the origin of an infected animal and animals with which it has had contact.
Valerius Geist, a biologist and expert on chronic-wasting disease, said the outbreak in Western Canada shows that a judicial inquiry is needed to examine the movements of domesticated elk and deer and their health records.
Chronic-wasting disease is in the same family of lethal brain ailments as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — the so-called mad-cow disease. It is not clear whether an infected elk or deer can pass the disease to humans or cattle. Medical experts said the possibility is remote.
But scientists are alarmed because the disease is spreading, even as the federal government is in the midst of an all-out campaign to eradicate it.
The disease was in an advanced state when it was found in the brain of a dead four-year-old deer on a game farm in Alberta last week, said Dr. Luterbach, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s chief veterinarian of animal health and production in Western Canada.
The earlier instances of the disease, on the farms in Saskatchewan, led the government to order every animal on each farm killed — 8,500 elk, Dr. Luterbach said. Compensation to farmers has cost the government $33-million.
One case of the disease was found in a farmed elk in Alberta in April.
The most recent figures show there were 155,000 farmed elk and deer in Canada in November, 2001, said Serge Buy, executive director of the Canadian Cervid Council.
Because the illness has spread to a third species, some elk and deer farmers are prohibited from selling and moving their animals for three weeks while officials investigate the latest case.
The prohibition is further cause for concern, said Darrel Rowledge, a director of Alliance for Public Wildlife in Calgary. Farmers in drought-stricken Alberta have been struggling to feed their animals. Mr. Rowledge and other conservationists worry that desperate farmers will be tempted to let the animals loose, although that is illegal.
If any domesticated animal is infected with chronic-wasting disease, freeing it would increase the chance that the disease could spread to wild animals.
Elk and deer are notorious for jumping fences. Officials tracking pen mates of the infected white-tailed deer have discovered some missing.
Larry Hrycun, an elk farmer near Thorhild, Alta., said he has difficulty finding feed for his animals. He said some elk and deer farmers are in such trouble they are considering suing the federal government for allowing diseased animals into the country from the United States. “What are they going to say? ‘Whoops?’ “
He said the industry faces so many problems that if the government were to shut it down tomorrow, he would not argue against it.
Recent criminal investigations into the trading of game-farm elk and deer have highlighted the potential for problems in tracking infected animals.