THE province has ordered conservation officers to use everything in their arsenal to find and kill as many as nine elk that escaped from a farm in Saskatchewan and are roaming in northwestern Manitoba.
Farm elk in Saskatchewan are known to be potential vectors of chronic wasting disease (CWD), dubbed the mad cow disease of cervid species such as deer and elk.
Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh ordered his department to combine helicopter and airplane surveillance to located and destroy the animals, starting immediately. A plane will try to identify wild herds with ear-tagged elk, evidence they came from an elk farm. The elk will then be tracked down for removal using a helicopter.
The elk must be destroyed since the only way to detect CWD is by a brain biopsy. If elk are not infected, the meat will be donated to food banks.
"It's about risk management, making sure we do everything we can to prevent the spread of this disease into Manitoba," Mackintosh said. Saskatchewan and Alberta are the only two provinces with CWD so far.
Ryan Brooks, a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan who has been studying elk in Manitoba's Duck and Riding mountains since 2002, called the government's measure "an incredibly important step towards the conservation of wildlife in Manitoba."
The news was welcome in western Manitoba.
"Things like hunting moose and elk, it's just a part of what rural people are," said Dan Soprovich, a wildlife consultant based in the Swan River area.
"We absolutely don't want to take any chances."
Up to nine elk are believed to have escaped from a farm near the Manitoba border whose fences were cut by vandals. There have been numerous sightings of the ear-tagged elk in the Swan River area.
CWD can be spread through feces and carcasses. It attacks the nervous system and results in a slow death in which animals lose weight and eventually begin to stagger and drool in the final stages.
In Saskatchewan, 57 captive elk herds have been destroyed since CWD was first discovered there in 1996. It's believed a farm elk imported from Colorado introduced the disease into that province. So far, it has spread to Alberta's cervid population.
The province encourages anyone who spots a ear-tagged elk running wild to contact a local Manitoba Conservation office or call 1-800-782-0076 (toll-free).