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Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.

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A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.