A disease raging through the deer population since its discovery in 1967 is slowly becoming a larger issue. 

This disease is called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and has been active in the deer population for decades and is showing no signs of slowing down or stopping its spread.

Dr.Margo Pybus a Provincial Wildlife Disease Specialist working for the Government of Alberta explains what this disease does and what it looks like.

“CWD is a prion disease, which means it does not involve a living agent, like a bacterium or a virus. The disease results from structural changes in the brain and when the brain is impaired, the animals eventually die as a result. We don't know the exact mechanisms of how it transfers in the wild, but certainly, it can pass by direct contact among deer. There are also some suggestions that the infective material can remain in the environment for limited amounts of time and could perhaps be picked up that way by a susceptible deer.”

This disease was first suspected to be in Canada among the deer population in the late 90s and the very first confirmed case was in 2000. 

The disease's symptoms are hard to spot early on as well as Dr. Pybus illustrates.

“It's a slow-acting disease and can take up to two years to kill them. The animal looks completely healthy and normal. However, In the later stages of the disease, they do as the name suggests actually waste away.  They start to get thin, can't put on any weight, and eventually get lethargic and die soon after that. The majority of the animals in the wild that are infected don't look any different than any other deer.”

Regardless, here is a list of late-stage CWD symptoms to look out for.

  • drastic weight loss (wasting)
  • stumbling.
  • lack of coordination.
  • listlessness.
  • drooling.
  • excessive thirst or urination.
  • drooping ears.
  • lack of fear of people.

CWD is strictly a wildlife problem and has no evidence of being able to spread to humans.

However, to the deer population, this is detrimental. As infected deer can not reproduce and in most cases due to the length of the disease end up spreading it to other deer in their area lowering the population even further. 

Dr. Pybus has been hard at work tracking and identifying key spreaders and vulnerable deer populations and she explains the main method for defying this disease in local populations.

“The primary tracking that we've implemented since 1998 is to work with hunters, so hunters are harvesting thousands of animals all across the province each year. In certain areas we ask hunters to provide us with the head of the animal that they harvest. Using those hunter-harvested heads, we do know that CWD is definitely in the Strathmore area. Now, looking at our data CWD occurs far more often in Mule deer than in whitetail deer and more often in males than females.”

Hunters in the Strathmore area that find symptoms of CWD in a deer should avoid interacting with it at all. Instead, inform a local fish and wildlife branch of the deer's location and condition. If the deer has already been killed, it's recommended that you wear gloves when handling the animal and avoid any unneeded interaction, consumption or transport of the animal until its head can be tested. 

Hunters should also consult the Government of Alberta's website to find more info on key identifiers of the disease, local impacted populations, and which locations in their area take heads for submission and testing.