WINNIPEG - 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.