On a September weekend in 2018, I was attending the After The Shot workshop put on by OFAH Zone G in order to provide a talk on deer behaviour. Also at the event was Dr. Joe Wilson, an OFAH Provincial Director-at-Large, and he was delivering a talk on wildlife disease. One of the diseases he touched on was CWD. At that time, CWD was a longstanding concern of the OFAH, for decades actually, but it was not an immediate problem for Ontario. The 2005 New York outbreak had been contained, Michigan and Minnesota’s cases were a fair distance from our borders, and Manitoba and Quebec were both CWD-free.
It’s crazy sometimes how quickly things can change. As I was watching Dr. Wilson’s presentation, my phone buzzed and when I checked the email, my stomach dropped. CWD had been detected on a red deer farm in Quebec.
From there, the news only got worse. Not only were the cases found on one of the largest red deer farms in Canada, that very farm was only 15 kilometres from the Quebec/eastern Ontario border. Just think about that distance for a second. Fifteen kilometres is nothing for a deer to move, especially in the spring and fall when they make their seasonal migrations. In fact, I’ve seen does moving up to 22 kilometers while researching deer in eastern Ontario for my PhD. The Ottawa River would likely act as a partial barrier to crossing, but not one that we could bet the health of our deer, moose, elk, and caribou on. In a flash, CWD had gone from being a problem on the horizon to one right on our doorstep.
Since that phone buzzed in 2018, I’ve had a frontline role in the OFAH’s push for more government action on CWD. It has been a wild ride with plenty of ups and downs, but when the Ontario government announced that it was clamping down on the pathways that could allow chronic wasting disease (CWD) into the province in mid-December it was a major milestone for the OFAH. Here’s how it all came to be from my view.
SPRINGING INTO ACTION
Once CWD was detected in Quebec, the immediate priority was making sure that it had not spread into Ontario. Quebec’s version of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry would conduct extensive depopulation and testing of the wild deer surrounding the farm with no wild cases of CWD being detected, but in early fall of 2018 those results were not available. We were lucky in that the MNRF’s own CWD Surveillance Program had been in eastern Ontario in 2017 with no cases detected, but CWD can take time to manifest so we were not in the clear. The OFAH lobbied the MNRF to return to eastern Ontario in the fall of 2018. They did and we helped promote the surveillance work, contributing 400 orange OFAH hats for anyone who submitted a sample. The MNRF would go on to conduct follow up surveillance in 2019 and 2020, with no cases of CWD detected to date.
UNCOVERING ONTARIO’S LEAKY REGULATION OF DEER FARMING
Even before the 2018 surveillance started, we were diving deep into the Ontario government’s policies on the movement of live animals by the deer farming industry. What we found was shocking. There were no CWD-related rules that would have prevented that Quebec farm from shipping animals into Ontario, right up until CWD was detected. Even though the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act gave the MNRF the authority to regulate the movement of captive cervids, this only applied native species (white-tailed deer, moose, elk, and caribou). Red deer, which are native to Eurasia and make up roughly two-thirds of the deer farmed in Ontario, could be moved without a MNRF permit and put on a farm that had no mandatory requirements for fencing or animal identification, and no requirement to report their location or herd composition to the MNRF.
MAKING CHANGE HAPPEN
In our eyes, this situation was simply unacceptable as the movement of live animals by the deer farming industry has been recognized as one of the primary pathways of CWD spread for almost two decades. Animals can be infected and infectious but show no symptoms, and there is no reliable live test. These animals spread CWD to new farms, where it inevitably spills over the fence to infect wild deer. In our October 2018 letter to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, we strongly recommended that the MNRF’s authority be expanded to limit the movement of all members of the deer family, whether they are native to Ontario or not.
That letter was only the start of what would become two years for hard driving advocacy on CWD. We focused our entire 2019 Fish and Wildlife Conference on CWD and brought in experts from across North America to share their knowledge and help identify actions needed to address CWD. Following the conference, we created the group Canadians Concerned About CWD which brought together stakeholders from conservation groups, government, research, agriculture, and academia, as well as hunters passionate about healthy wildlife. We wrote articles, gave interviews, commented on government proposals, met with government staff, and anything else needed to drive home the point that things needed to change.
The first pay off of this advocacy was the adoption of an updated Ontario CWD Prevention and Response Plan in late 2019. Now, with the recent announcement, the province is at a point where we have a fighting chance of keeping CWD out.
OFAH PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
The recent announcement is a big milestone. You can read the full details here but the highlights are:
- Prohibiting import of all species of live cervids into Ontario, with some exceptions.
- Prohibiting the movement of live captive cervids between locations within Ontario, with some exceptions.
- Expanding the existing prohibition on the possession and use of lures, scents and attractants made from parts of cervids.
- Expanding the existing prohibition on import into Ontario of high-risk parts of cervids hunted in other jurisdictions.
FINAL WORD…FOR NOW
In the past we’ve been challenged by government inaction on CWD, but we seemed to have turned the tide during the past couple of years and we’ve received great support in many parts of the MNRF, from science and policy corners right up to the Minister’s office. It has made a huge difference in Ontario’s fight against CWD. While that support has helped to close a massive hole that was putting our white-tailed deer, moose, elk, and caribou at risk, we’re not done yet.
As long as the deer farming industry exists in Ontario, so does the risk of getting CWD, which is why we’re continuing to push for a phase out of the industry, with compensation to farmers. We as hunters need to be individually active as well and participate in the MNRF CWD Surveillance Program whenever we can.
However, these changes can let all OFAH members breathe a big sigh of relief and feel good about the role they played in making this happen.