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The Effects of Feeding Deer in Town 

Crowding and poor digestion lead to a deadly disease among deer populations

Mule deer have enough trouble getting through winter while coping with the cold and wet—so why people add on the extra burdens of disease and food they can't digest is baffling to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) biologists.

Come on, people. Stop feeding the mule deer, those constant moochers in our backyards. In fact, do just the opposite: shout at them, throw rags at them, squirt them with the garden hose, do everything (legally) possible to convince them that living in town is not good for their health.

If the deer in town don't get hit by a semi going down the main drag, they can bunch up and spread Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease—and that disease is really a killer. Kincaid Smeltzer, whom I frequently bump into at Bi Mart, went hiking with some of his pals recently in the Alder Springs Trail country, finding dead mule deer on and near the trail. Judging by the smell, he knew there were also more dead ones nearby.

Smeltzer said, "They were found all along the trail from the start to end. Some deer seemed more recent dead than others with only a couple with signs of predation, or what I could see.

"The ones that had not been eaten yet were curled up. As a result of seeing all these dead deer, I wanted to see if I could find out what happened."

During a phone call to the Bend ODFW office, reporting Smelzer's discovery, both Corey Heath and Randy Lewis sighed. Lewis said, "Yeah, those are probably more victims of AHD, Jim. We've been checking deer in the Metolius Unit and surrounding area and AHD's hit them pretty hard."

And then he added, "I wish there were some way we could stop those kind-hearted people from feeding deer. Not only was AHD the cause of their deaths, but when we checked the stomachs of some of the dead deer we found undigested junk food, including alfalfa, heavy grains and cracked corn. When are people going to get it? Mule deer CANNOT digest cracked corn!"

He went on to address how crowding deer, when feeding them grains and chicken food, not only kills them, but spreads AHD quicker, and keeps them in town, preventing the deer from going out to the wintering grounds where healthy food is abundant.

According to ODFW data, here's what AHD is all about:

+ Deer infected with AHD can have symptoms that include foaming or drooling at the mouth, rapid or open-mouth breathing, diarrhea (possibly bloody), weakness, ulcers and mouth and throat abscesses.

+ During an outbreak in Oregon in 2002, deer of all ages and sex classes died. Between May and August 2002 biologists estimate more than 400 deer died from the virus in the Crooked River Ranch area of Central Oregon and near Sisters. Researchers are still trying to determine how many deer were exposed to AHD but survived.

+ AHD can be passed among deer through contact with bodily fluids, and possibly through airborne routes. The time between exposure and signs of illness or death is roughly one week. Deer populations in higher-density areas (such as those in town) could be at a higher risk, since their proximity makes it easier to transmit. It's for that reason that ODFW encourages you to refrain from giving feed or water to deer.

To cut down on the incidence of the disease, officials advise monitoring, proper carcass disposal and avoiding moving infected live deer. There is, at present, no cure.

So far, humans don't appear to get sick from AHD. Still, if you live or hunt in an area known to contain infected deer, wear rubber gloves if you're handling carcasses. ODFW doesn't know of any risk of eating meat from a deer infected with AHD, but recommend thoroughly cooking meat from animals harvested in an infected area.

So there you have it. AHD is nothing to fool around with, and who knows how many dead deer Kincaid Smelzer and his pals didn't see on their hike through the Alder Springs mule deer wintering area.

What I'd like to see: the Oregon Legislature getting busy passing a law making it illegal for anyone to feed mule deer and elk. If the ancient game harvest law is still on the books, it's already illegal for anyone to kill a game animal going to or from water. Why not include feeding deer junk food as well?

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