The federal government is planning to test elk for tuberculosis in a
Manitoba national park amid fears the disease could infect cattle herds.

Parks
Canada has issued a request for proposals for tests in Riding Mountain
National Park citing a “serious threat” to the livestock industry. The
park in western Manitoba is home to just over 2,000 elk and officials
estimate about four per cent are infected with the contagious
respiratory illness.

“The ecological impact of the disease on the
elk population is unknown, although with a low prevalence, it is not
believed to be population limiting,” says the request obtained by The
Canadian Press.

“However, being present in a wild ungulate
population, that is transboundary and therefore migrates out of the park
and onto adjacent lands, creates a serious threat to the livestock
industry.”

The request says there are about 50,000 cows on 700 farms in the area that could be threatened by the contagious disease.

Ken
Kingdon, co-ordinator of the wildlife health program at Riding Mountain
park, said testing is part of an ongoing effort to “whittle” away at
the disease. Elk are tested and then tracked using a GPS collar, he
said. Infected elk are recaptured and destroyed.

“Our intent and our hope is that our actions will end up leading to eradication of bovine tuberculosis in wildlife.”

The
disease has lingered for decades but Kingdon said there’s reason to be
optimistic that it may be on the wane. All the animals which have tested
positive in recent years have been older elk, suggesting that the next
generation doesn’t seem to be as susceptible.

“There are no new
animals getting the disease,” Kingdon said. “That gives us some real
hope that once we get rid of this older generation of animals, that
we’ll actually get rid of the disease.”

Cam Dahl, general manager of the Manitoba Beef Producers, said farmers need a much more aggressive strategy.

Dahl
said battling tuberculosis for over 20 years has taken a toll. The
constant testing of cattle herds is expensive – $14 a head – and is now
borne entirely by the farmer, Dahl said. One infected cow can mean an
entire herd needs to be destroyed and can lead to difficulty selling
beef in some markets, he noted.

It’s not enough to test the elk
herd periodically, said Dahl, who suggested all levels of government
have to come together and appoint a co-ordinator who can work across all
jurisdictions to eradicate the disease.

He pointed out other jurisdictions, such as Minnesota, have managed to stamp out the disease.

“The
status quo is not something that is sustainable and not something that
we would like to see continue. Producers in that area do need to see the
disease eradicated.”

In addition to the federal effort, provincial officials say they are also doing what they can.

Richard
Davis, a biologist with Manitoba Conservation, said hunters are
required to provide biological samples to keep tabs on diseased animals
outside of the national park. But they don’t actively seek out the
animals, he said.

“It’s very difficult. You can’t tell from just looking at a live animal if it has a disease or not.”

Dale
Douma, a veterinarian with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural
Initiatives, said farmers themselves have a role to play in curbing TB.

Tuberculosis
is spread primarily through shared hay bales if they are not protected
from wild elk. That’s why many provincial programs are aimed at keeping
elk from interacting with livestock using proper fencing and dogs, Douma
said.

“That basically prevents or reduces the number of wildlife
that come on to your property and then, if they do come on to your
property, hopefully that feed is being held behind a wildlife-proof
fence,” he said.

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