Chronic wasting disease confirmed in British Columbia

Feb. 9—Chronic wasting disease is continuing its slow march around the continent.

Wildlife officials in British Columbia announced earlier this month that the always-fatal disease was confirmed in the southeastern part of the province.

A male mule deer killed by a hunter and a female white-tailed deer that had been hit by a car tested positive for the disease.

They are the first animals to test positive in British Columbia, which had stayed clean for years despite known hotspots not far from its borders.

Jesse Zeman, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said in a news release that the disease can be devastating for populations of elk and deer, and that the province will need to stay vigilant for additional detections.

"We have been watching CWD spread province to province, state to state for at least 20 years, so this is terrible news for British Columbians," Zeman said.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by misfolded proteins called prions, and it attacks an animal's nervous system. Elk, moose, deer and caribou can become infected. The disease is not known to affect humans, though health officials advise against eating infected meat.

Between animals, however, it's easily transmissible, particularly in dense populations. High prevalence rates could cause problems in deer or elk populations by reducing the number of animals that make it to adulthood, according to the CWD Alliance.

More than 30 U.S. states have confirmed the disease, including Idaho and Montana. With the addition of British Columbia, it's now been found in five Canadian provinces.

The two infected animals were found near Cranbrook, which is in southeastern British Columbia, north of Montana and close to the Alberta border. The disease has been known to be in Montana and Alberta for years.

British Columbia ordered mandatory testing for deer killed in hunting districts along both borders in 2021.

The fact that the detections were still east of the Idaho border means they create no new urgency for wildlife managers in Idaho or Washington, though officials in both states said this week that the finding is concerning.

"It's a little ways up there, but it's still too close for comfort," said Staci Lehman, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Washington is one of a handful of Western states that has yet to record a case of chronic wasting disease. Officials have been encouraging hunters to submit samples for years, and they've also been testing road-killed animals.

As of this week, WDFW had gathered close to 700 samples, Lehman said, and all that have been tested were negative.

She said Washington would continue testing as usual in northeastern Washington, aiming to "get as many deer as we can tested."

TJ Ross, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Panhandle region, said the news from British Columbia confirms the disease exists north and east of the Panhandle, but that it won't change the state's surveillance strategy.

"We know it's there," Ross said. "We're going to continue sampling."

Chronic wasting disease is known to exist in central Idaho. Officials found it north of Riggins in 2021, and officials confirmed a case near the town of New Meadows last fall. But officials have been watching the panhandle closely since CWD showed up in parts of western Montana that are close to the Idaho border.

Ross said the agency typically tests between 300 and 400 animals from the Panhandle each year, with a particular focus on the Bonners Ferry area. This past hunting season, the state tested 350 samples, all of them negative.