According to Alberta's Ministry of Agriculture, chronic wasting disease belongs to a family of fatal, degenerative infections diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which also includes mad cow disease — or bovine spongiform encephalopathy — and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease affect cattle and humans, chronic wasting disease affects elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer.
Now, there is concern the spread of the disease from game farms introduced in the 1980s to wild game populations could send the agricultural industry reeling.
"It's spreading more aggressively than ever and it holds a potential huge risk," said David Swann, the Alberta Liberal Party's agriculture critic. "It could potentially devastate our agricultural industry again."
The agricultural industry in Alberta was savaged by mad cow disease in 2003.
International borders slammed shut to Alberta beef after a lone cow with the disease was found in a remote northern Alberta farm.
Some are still not open and the economic impact for Alberta beef producers has transformed the industry, with the number of beef cattle producers down to 18,600 in 2011 from 32,000 in 1996.
Swann says the provincial government needs to move quickly to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease from similarly devastating the province's agricultural industry all over again.
Alberta Agriculture says it's not known exactly how the disease spreads but it may occur through contamination of water and feed by infected saliva or feces.
It can only be diagnosed by examining the animal's brain after death and many infected animals don't show symptoms for years.
It is more likely to occur in crowded environments such as man-made feed and water stations.
Eleven states, two provinces affected
Chronic wasting disease has been found in deer and elk across 11 U.S. states as well as in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Alberta's first case was confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in September 2005, in several locations along the Saskatchewan border.
Saskatchewan's first case was detected in 2001.
Darrel Rowledge is a director for the Alliance for Public Wildlife and is making a film about the disease.
He says the disease is well on its way to spanning from Texas to the Arctic and should be considered an epidemic.
"It's growing, it's spreading, it's persisting and it's evolving — evolving both to and through new species," he said. "Unfortunately, what [the government] is doing is cutting back."
Rowledge says the federal government has proposed lifting the quarantine and testing of detected cases in Alberta and Saskatchewan by declaring the spread of the disease out of control in those areas.
He says the government has also proposed restricting the export of game animals from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
However, there has been no confirmation from the government of any such plans.
"The federal government is washing its hands of it. If the provinces want to do anything about it, they're going to have to spend their own money," he said.
Shut down the farms?
Swann says it's unlikely the provincial government in Alberta will dedicate additional resources to stopping the spread of the disease.
He says some Progressive Conservative MLAs got into game farming back in the 1980s.
Some say those farms are incubating the disease and spreading it to the wild game population — and should be shut down.
However, Swann says he hasn't seen any indication the province is willing to crack down on the game farms.
So far, the province has culled entire herds where it detected chronic wasting disease.
There is no evidence to suggest the disease can spread to humans, but Rowledge says no one thought it was likely mad cow disease could spread to humans either — until it did.
"The real concern is not just what if it jumps to people. The big concern is what if this jumps to people and then manifests in people like it does in deer, where it's highly contagious, where you could be [contagious] for 10 years before you ever become symptomatic?"