Animals found dead in early-April near Nipawin in province’s east-central region

The first-ever cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild elk have been discovered in Saskatchewan, but the provincial government hasn’t been very public about it.

The animals were found dead west of Nipawin in early April, close to Fort a la Corne in the province’s east-central region. An “announcement” was posted May 6 on the Ministry of Environment website but not on the government’s main page or distributed as a news release.

“We want to understand the significance of it before we take any radical action,” said Rick Ashton, director of resource allocation at the fish and wildlife branch of the ministry. “They were found in an area highly infected with CWD in white-tailed deer. It’s just another species. It’s not a significant event at this point.”

“These are the first cases in wild elk. It’s out there now, so how long before it moves into even more species,” said SWF executive director Darrell Crabbe. “We know moose can contract the disease and there’s a good possibility from there it could jump to caribou.”

The elk were both female cows, aged 11/2 and 31/2 years. The younger one was found dead in a pea field near a road and exhibited severe trauma consistent with being hit by a vehicle. The older animal was found in a field and appeared to have been dead for three or four days, according to the government. Only the head of the latter was submitted, so confirmation of the cause of death was not possible.

Although both animals tested positive for CWD, it was believed they were in the early stages of the disease and did not die from that, the announcement states. The disease is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, attacking the brains and nervous systems of cervid (deer family) animals.

The Ministry of Environment is planning to meet with a CWD committee – comprised of wildlife groups, hunter organizations, stock growers, rural municipalities and First Nations – to discuss the findings and develop a management plan.

The SWF doesn’t have a lot of faith in the government management policies. An inventory program intended to monitor the number of animals in game farms is “a joke,” said Crabbe, who blames game farms for CWD in the province by setting less valuable animals in the wild.

Hunt farms bring in a lot of money for farmers and ranchers who have suffered from reduced incomes during the years. Wealthy hunters from the United States will pay thousands of dollars for a day’s hunt, and they want to return with something to show for it, said Crabbe, who is skeptical the diseased Saskatchewan elk were wild animals.

“I find it very coincidental, too coincidental, to find two cows, so close in age, both testing positive in that area,” he said, noting cows are less valuable than elk bulls to hunters.

The ministry’s wildlife disease specialist, Dr. Yeen Ten Hwang, said there is no evidence the elk were originally domestic.

“There were no ear tags and the pathologist saw no hair loss or ripping where the tags might have been,” she said.

Asked why the findings weren’t publicized to the media, she said, “I don’t know. We’ve had a lot of CWD in the deer and it was only a matter of time until it was transferred to elk. We sort of expected it.”

The first cases of CWD in Canada were traced to a Lloydminster-area farm that imported animals from South Dakota in the 1980s. How CWD is transmitted is not yet completely understood, though it is believed to occur if animals are in close proximity, likely through the saliva, feces or urine.

An outbreak of CWD in the 1990s devastated the herds and livelihoods of many producers. There is no way to confirm the presence of the disease until the brain can be examined. As a result, tens of thousands of animals have been killed to contain the spread of CWD. The vast majority have tested negative.

“We certainly weren’t trying to keep it quiet,” Ashton said of the dead elk. “We let the important folks who needed to know about it know. We did suppress it until we could tell our key and critical stakeholders because if something like this gets out, it will spread fast and it is important to carefully manage our communications. Then we put it on the website, which is very public.”

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