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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.

velvet-1

The antlers of all the Ontario cervids have, by now, been free of velvet for weeks. The crowns are now hardened bone, slowly shrinking as they dry.

Antler velvet is a hairy skin that is a component of growing antler bone. It’s very sensitive as it covers a mass of blood vessels and nerves that will quickly transform into a crown of antlers. Antlers are said to be one of the fastest growing tissues found in the animal world.

On whitetails, the velvet is shed quickly and, it seems, in private. I’ve never witnessed a buck shedding its velvet; only once I saw a buck that had obviously just shed its velvet (the buck in the photo). Fresh red blood still smeared the whitish bone. I once watched a bull moose losing its velvet; it used the dead, overhead branches of a large spruce to rake its antlers and as the velvet sloughed off, the bull would shake its head, grab velvet in its mouth, chew it off and eat it. Velvet is high in nutrients and minerals; it’s seldom allowed to go to waste.

Most hunters are fascinated by antlers and in many cultures antlers are considered to be a trophy and a memorable part of the hunt. There are a number of organizations that maintain records of large antlered specimens and there are also various standardized methodologies used to ‘score’ or rank antlers. One of the best known is the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) that uses a scoring system with the same name. The club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the USA from 1901 to 1909.

In England and Europe, the antlers of stags, notably those of red deer, have adorned the walls of castles and homes of nobility for centuries.

Antlers – presence or absence, plus size – are often an integral part of how members of the deer family are managed by game agencies everywhere.

B&C categorizes antlers as being either ‘typical’, or non-typical. Typical antlers reward size and symmetry; in other words a great typical buck has ‘perfect’ antlers, the large antlers are a mirror of each other and have no unusual or abnormal growths of points other than what is considered to be normal for the species.  Non-typicals are just that. The biggest antlers are usually non-typicals.

For the antlers of a white-tailed buck to be listed (declared a bona-fide trophy) in the typical category by B&C, it must be measured by a certified B&C scorer and have a net score of at least 170. Most trophy typical whitetails have 5 points on each antler, although some have 4 and some more than 5. The present world record was shot by Milo Hansen in 1993 in Saskatchewan. It is basically a 6X6 with two small points on the right antler; it has a net score of 213 5/8ths.

Before a set of antlers can be officially measured and scored, there must be a ‘drying’ period of at least 60 days after the harvest of the animal. Particularly large antlers may shrink a few inches in that 60 day drying period; shrinkage could continue for a few years, but once the deer has been officially scored and measured, that’s the score, regardless if it continues to shrink (marginally) over time. Antlers are measured without velvet.

An elk antler from an animal that roamed Minnesota prior to their extirpation in the mid-19th century was recently found in the bottom of a lake in that state. A large antler, it was hollow; apparently it had developed full size but not yet full ossification. It probably wound up in the lake early in the fall. How that happened is by no means clear, but if it was deposited in early fall, it must have been associated with the death of the bull, as elk antlers aren’t shed until March or April. The inner, softer, developing portion deteriorated over time in the water, but the outer core was still intact. Maybe it was still in velvet.

Another interesting antler factoid.