A Mule Deer Mystery On The Chena River

Mule deer are common in the Lower 48 but rarely seen in Alaska, which makes the discovery of a dead muley near the Chena River a bit of a mystery. (Yathin S Krishnappa/Wikipedia)

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: 

A mule deer carcass found last week near the highway bridge over the Chena River Flood Control area is getting a close look by the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“The deer was definitely killed in a vehicle collision and died very quickly,” said wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen. “When it happened is difficult to pin down.”

Turns out, the question of timing could be important.

Mule deer are not indigenous to Alaska, but occasional sightings have been reported in the eastern Interior since at least the 1970s. All have likely immigrated from within the species’ current range in Yukon, Canada. Of concern to Alaska wildlife officials are parasites and diseases mule deer carry that could spread to Alaska’s moose and caribou. Introduction of moose winter tick is Beckmen’s greatest fear.

“This parasite has been detected in over 50 percent of the mule deer examined by wildlife officials in the Whitehorse area and is also found on moose, caribou, and elk in the Yukon,” Beckmen said. “It is a parasite that kills young moose and can devastate moose populations.”

The deer found last week was a buck in good health prior to being struck, said Beckmen who performed a necropsy. Judging by the state of decomposition, the deer might have died a week ago or over the winter and recently thawed.

“There was no hair loss, so if it died anytime from January on, we can say it wasn’t infected with moose winter tick. However, if it died last fall or early winter, there would not be adult ticks or classic hair loss patterns visible yet. We need help from the public to determine when the animal was hit on the bridge.”

Mule deer are larger “cousins” of the Sitka black-tailed deer found in the Southeast Panhandle, Prince William Sound, and Kodiak. Reports of sightings in Interior Alaska have grown more frequent in recent years, suggesting their presence is part of the species’ natural movement. In 2013, three were reported north of Delta Junction. Last year, a fawn was photographed in a North Pole driveway. In addition to winter tick, mule deer may also carry other pathogens potentially fatal to moose and caribou including liver flukes, deer adenovirus and brain worm.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is interested in documenting Interior mule deer sightings. The public is asked to report any sightings of live or dead mule deer immediately to the department or the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

Email dfg.dwc.vet@alaska.gov to report sick or dead wildlife, or call the Wildlife Health Reporting and Information Line: 907-328-8354. To learn more about wildlife diseases, visit the department’s webpage: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=disease.main.

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