Urban Deer – British Columbia’s Ticking Time Bomb

by Apr 30, 2020Conservation

In May of 2019, the hunting community and the Fish & Wildlife Branch in British Columbia were thrust onto the front lines of having to go to the next level of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) management. May 2019 is when the first case of CWD was reported west of the continental divide in Montana near the town of Libby. By the end of 2019, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had found 61 white-tailed deer that tested positive for CWD along with one elk and one moose in the Libby CWD Survey Area.

For decades, CWD was ticking away east of the Rocky Mountains in places in Alberta but it has never crossed the Rockies. The confirmation of that first case of CWD in Libby caught everyone in BC by surprise. The community of Libby, Montana is west of the Rocky Mountains and only 67 km from BC. CWD somehow made a leap from eastern Montana and over the mountains to Libby without Fish and Wildlife experts in the state being aware of any westward progression of the disease. Some of the CWD cases in Libby were advanced stages of the disease meaning that deer in the Libby area had been living with CWD for at least 2 years.

Through the summer of 2019, hunters and BC government wildlife health experts pulled together a new CWD surveillance program that resulted in over 1000 deer heads being submitted by hunters for CWD testing. Until then, BC had been collecting deer heads from hunters on a volunteer basis, but submission was made mandatory for parts of Southeast BC near the Montana border for the 2019 hunting season. Hunters and hunting groups were instrumental in helping purchase freezers and set up sample collection stations for this increased collection of heads across Southeast BC.

As of January 2020, no deer from BC has tested positive for CWD. BC significantly increased the number of deer samples it was collecting compared to prior to 2019, which helped build confidence in the ability to detect CWD should it appear in the deer populations in the various game management zones along the BC-Montana border.

BC is still CWD free but the threat from CWD deer in the Libby area warranted the increased level of monitoring in 2019, and more sampling will be needed again in 2020. Before a control strategy is ever implemented, wildlife managers need data from this type of intensive CWD monitoring to help inform when, how and where to develop a response plan.

In January 2020, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks finalized the results of their 2019 enhanced CWD testing in the Libby area. Shockingly, most of the deer that tested positive for CWD came from a cluster immediately around the town of Libby.
The threat of CWD infected deer moving between Libby and BC was heightened because of an urban deer management program in the city of Cranbrook several years ago. An attempt at solving the urban deer problem in Cranbrook lead to a pilot project where urban deer were captured and translocated to greener pastures about 60 km south of the city near the Montana border. One of these translocated deer, a mule deer doe, ended up leaving BC and wandered directly into the town of Libby. She was now living among a CWD infected population. Luckily, she never came back, and luckily Libby did not attempt a similar project.

CWD samples within the Libby area. Image courtesy of the Montana FWP

How did this cluster of urban deer around Libby contract CWD when the nearest cases known to wildlife officials were in the eastern part of the state? As of right know, there are no solid answers. One possible explanation includes free-ranging infected wild deer possibly making their way across Montana and meeting up with urban deer around Libby. We know that the prions that cause CWD can stay viable in water and soil as well as on forage and in plant tissue. Another possibility is that CWD infected material such as soil, feed products or hay was brought into Libby.

CWD research is also showing that the prions that cause CWD can be ingested, transported and deposited by scavengers including crows and coyotes. However, long-distance transport of CWD over the Rocky Mountains from Eastern Montana to Libby seems unlikely given that the research indicates the prions are only viable for about 3 days inside the gut of these animals.

Finally, the reality exists that a hunter’s deer carcass that was infected with CWD was transported into the Libby area and the infectious tissue, mostly the brain and spine, were discarded somewhere where the town’s urban deer came into contact with it. Deer are herbivores but it is known that urban deer get into and eat all kinds of domestic household refuse. All it might have taken was one garbage can in a back alley with some discarded infected deer tissue getting tipped over by an urban deer.

As part of BC’s CWD prevention program, the province has not allowed the farming of native deer (one of the biggest known risks of CWD getting into wild deer), and it is illegal to transport an intact carcass of an ungulate into BC. In late 2019, a hunter transported an intact mule deer carcass taken in Alberta to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Luckily, BC Conservation Officers were able to locate and confiscate the deer which, after testing, was found to not be infected with CWD. But this case highlights how quickly CWD can get spread from the wild to urban deer by non-law-abiding citizens.

The Libby CWD surveillance data from 2019 combined with the current COVID-19 pandemic has turned BC’s urban deer into the proverbial elephant in the room. It has been reported that humans were exposed to the coronavirus in markets where wild animals are sold and where the animals and humans are in close contact. We know that CWD has not bridged the gap between deer and humans, but the risk is being taken seriously enough that health authorities recommend not eating CWD infected deer meat.

We know that urban deer can transmit CWD through feces, salvia, semen and urine. We also know that urban deer live and do their biological business in your community’s parks, schoolyards and playgrounds where your children play. Coronavirus is showing us that when society forces this unnatural closeness between wild animal and humans, these infections find a way to take advantage of new hosts – namely us humans.

According to this article in LiveScience, about 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Most of these human infections come from livestock, including pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, sheep and camels. These diseases kill about 2.2 million people per year.

Over the last half a century, however, a suite of infectious diseases has made the jump from wild animals to humans. The HIV/Aids virus originated in the great apes, avian flu came from birds, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) came from bats through civets and Ebola came from bats.

I completely empathize with people that do not see urban deer culls as being compassionate or good for deer populations. Even as a hunter, the idea of killing wild animals because they are a “problem” to people is an aspect of human-wildlife coexistence that I wish we could solve. But as a conservationist who sees that we deal in risk management and trade-offs to protect the larger natural world, I am also a realist.

I look at the bigger issue facing wildlife as CWD closes in around BC with the potential of CWD becoming a human disease, and it is an obvious reality – we should not allow this situation of living with urban deer in BC go on any longer. For the sake of wildlife populations and for the protection of human health, deer and humans should not be living together in BC communities like they are right now.

Translocating urban deer and lethal removal of only small percentages of the urban deer populations are simply measures that need to stop if BC is going to remain serious about CWD prevention. As untenable as this idea is to think about, BC must act now. We need to enter a phase of urban deer eradication from our communities. Wildlife and humans can co-exist, but we are not meant to live together in towns like a Disney movie.

In the case of BC’s urban deer, compassionate conservation for a small number of deer is the least compassionate thing that can be done for all wildlife given the current CWD threats near the province’s borders. As Dr. Ryan Brook, invasive wild pig researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, says, “One does not dabble in eradication”. BC has been dabbling for over a decade. Dabbling in urban deer culls hasn’t solved any problems. Dabbling certainly isn’t going to prevent the Libby, Montana situation either.

We are at a critical crossroad in BC with trying to remain a CWD free province. In addition to removing urban deer, communities should also start high fencing to prevent future ingress of deer into the urban setting where continuous removal is needed. At minimum, municipalities should be fencing where your children play so that they cannot come into contact with deer feces and urine.

As a hunting community, we also need to face the reality of CWD prevention as well as our role in creating some of the risks by hunting out of the province. We need to continue to be proactive and have tough conversations about what’s best for wildlife. After the Nanaimo-Alberta deer carcass incident last year, which likely isn’t the first intact carcass moved into BC from a CWD zone in Alberta, it is probably time that BC prohibit hunters from moving any part of a game animal into the province until it is certified CWD free in the jurisdiction the game animal was harvested in. This may require some type of import-export chain of custody. The other less tenable option is to prohibit any part of a deer from being brought back into BC altogether.

When it comes to CWD prevention, BC has been doing all the right things that the experts say a jurisdiction should being doing for prevention. British Columbian’s should take pride in that. But after seeing the Libby Montana case, we need to do more. We must reduce the risk of urban deer becoming CWD ground zero for all the other species of ungulates in the province.

Cover Image:Copyright © gchapel / Adobe Stock

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