The Dene Nation is making an appeal to the territorial and federal government to meet as quickly as possible to act on an emerging disease that could devastate northern caribou herds.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya issued a press release Dec. 21 calling on both the GNWT and the federal government to take “preventative action” on chronic wasting disease (CWD).
The disease, which is in the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy family, is similar to mad cow disease, scrapie, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob and affects the immune systems of quadrupeds like caribou, mule deer, white-tail deer, elk or reindeer. Like the other strains of the disease, it is characterized by the misfolding of a protein – called a prion- that results in plaques forming in an animal’s brain. The tissue then resembles a sponge and is fatal among animals.
At this time, there are no treatment options, according to researchers. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) there is no evidence the disease can be transmitted to humans, but Yakeleya is concerned about how it could devastate northern caribou population numbers and how Treaty 8 Indigenous livelihoods could suffer.
“This disease is dangerous and what I really got alarmed about is that it is moving from U.S. into Canada,” he said, adding that the impact of climate change is bringing southern diseases more quickly into the North.
“We got in contact with some Universities of Alberta professors and they said it is coming up and moving north, south, east and west.
“Caribou of course don’t go by any boundaries and it is a free-range animal. So there is a possibility that it is spreading and we don’t know if it is getting to our herds.”
Yakeleya said his director of lands and environment Trevor Teed has been working closely on the impacts of climate change in Northern life and raised the issue of a November report co-authored by Dr. Judd Aiken and researcher Debbie McKenzie of the University of Alberta Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases. The report, called “Soil humic acids degrade CWD prions and reduce infectivity,” announces the discovery of a soil substance that reduces the ability of the spread of CWD.
The academics argue that substances in the soil can contribute to the spread of the disease through bodily fluids like saliva, urine and feces. A soil property called humic acids, however, which results from the decay of plant matter, can help prevent it from spreading.
Yakeleya would like to see representatives from the GNWT and the federal government gather as well as hunters and trappers directly impacted to come up with a plan to “divert it or prevent it.” It is no different from if there were an outbreak of disease like mad cow or E. coli threatening southern livestock on farms, he said.
“They need to do something other than sit on their hands because it is our main dietary source that is threatened and I think that is a state of crisis that we need to meet,” he said.
He said that in many Northern Indigenous communities, it may be forgotten that there is a high dependency among people on caribou and other wild animals, in part because they don’t have the money to spend on imported items to local stores.
“Right now (governments) don’t seem to understand that our way of life is threatened by the spreading of this disease into our caribou or moose.”
Officials with the GNWT department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) note that there have been no instances of the disease in the NWT or in northern Alberta or Saskatchewan. There has also been none found in free-ranging caribou. However, the GNWT is making efforts to prevent the disease from entering the North.
“ENR is currently working with communities and co-management partners on hunter-based health surveillance programs for CWD testing of members of the deer family (moose, white-tailed deer and caribou),” said Meagan Wohlberg, manager of public affairs and communications with ENR. “The GNWT is in regular communication with other wildlife management agencies, animal health agencies, and wildlife disease experts involved in monitoring, managing and reporting on CWD in Canada, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
Wohlberg said the GNWT is working closely with other jurisdictions, communities, co-management partners to monitor wildlife health in the NWT and to monitor any sign of the disease. New regulations under the NWT Wildlife Act will take force in 2019 and will include efforts to reduce the risk of the disease in the NWT such as restrictions on the movement of live deer or deer parts from areas known to have had the disease or required surveillance where wild game is harvested.
“Proposed new regulations under the Wildlife Act are an important tool to prevent the introduction of CWD through the movement of deer or deer parts from other areas where the disease occurs,” she said.
“When the new regulations under the NWT Wildlife Act come into force, any harvester bringing anything other than boned-out deer meat from areas located 100km or more south of the NWT border will be specifically prohibited, unless the animal is tested to the satisfaction of ENR.