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'Mad cow disease for deer': First cases of fatal brain disease found in B.C.

Tests on two deer near Cranbrook, B.C., came back positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD) — a fatal degenerative brain disease that affects animals in the deer family.
Deer 1-0066Squamish
B.C. is home to three types of deer and two species: mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), black-tailed deer (also Odocoileus hemionus ) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

A highly contagious disease affecting deer has been detected for the first time in British Columbia. 

Tests on two deer near the Kootenay, B.C., town of Cranbrook came back positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD) — a fatal degenerative brain disease that affects animals in the deer family, wildlife experts with the B.C. government confirmed Thursday. 

A spokesperson with the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship confirmed the first positive case was found in a male mule deer, while the second was isolated in a female white-tailed deer found killed on the road. The diagnosis were confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on Jan. 31, 2024. 

Provincial wildlife veterinarians are leading an initial response that will set up a 10-kilometre radius in the area where the infected deer were found. 

People in that area “should remain attentive for further directions, including deer feeding in the area and the handling of carcasses,” said the spokesperson in an email.

The ministry is also urging anyone to report deer, moose, elk or caribou showing the following signs: weight loss; drooling; poor coordination; stumbling; or generally sick with no obvious reason.

Calls can be made to the 24/7 Report All Poachers and Polluters Line at 1-877-952-7277 or the B.C. Wildlife Health Program.

Jesse Zeman, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said the discovery of the disease opens up a whole new battle in the management and conservation of wildlife in the province.

“It’s the equivalent of mad cow disease for deer… They’ll have drool coming out of their mouth. They stagger. They spin in circles,” said Zeman.

“This will forever change British Columbia.”

The disease, which has recently been spreading through neighbouring Alberta, Idaho and Montana, is caused by prions, an infectious agent that causes cell death in the brains of deer, elk and moose. 

The prions are shed into the environment through the animal's feces, urine or dead body, and can spread infection through contaminated soil, vegetation or water years after an infected animal has died, according to the CFIA.

Since its first discovery in 1967, the disease has been found in South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the United States. In Canada, CWD has been mostly isolated to farmed deer and elk, as well as wild deer, elk and moose, in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

To date, there is no evidence it can be transmitted to humans. Jurisdictions across Canada have nevertheless put restrictions on meat products contaminated with CWD from entering the marketplace. 

Where cases have been isolated in the wild, warnings have been issued to hunters. 

Zeman, whose organization represents hunters and other outdoor recreationalists in the province, said the arrival of the disease will impact First Nations and anyone else whose food security depends on hunting game. 

He says the B.C. government has failed to adequately limit the risk of spreading the disease despite years of warning. While there is no vaccine for the fatal disease, Zeman said limiting dense urban deer populations through hunting is the only “band aid” available right now and one the government has dragged its feet on.

“It proliferates quite well in high-density deer populations, which we have in towns across southern B.C.,” he said.

“We expect towns like Cranbrook and Kimberley to be vectors.”