A while back, I wrote a piece about the dangerous consequences to you and me by feeding deer and therefore inviting cougar into our backyards. I pleaded with people who insist on feeding deer to please stop before they attract cougar, which in turn will assuredly result in mayhem on humans—and the unfortunate cougar. However, I missed the boat entirely on the danger to deer by loving them to death — quite literally.
It was a few years back while discussing the cougar/deer/people association with Claire Kunkel, Oregon Department of Fish and Widlife biologist and the Deschutes watershed district manager for the High Desert region. Kunkel opened the door to another serious problem associated with feeding deer: communicable wildlife diseases, including Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease (AHD)—which can be spread easily by feeding deer and making them into "pets." It alone could destroy more mule deer in Central Oregon in a year than hunters could harvest in two years, and might even compete with motor vehicles as a wasteful destruction of game animals.
In 2002, AHD was confirmed in an outbreak in Central Oregon (Deschutes and Jefferson counties). Between May 9 through December 2002, an estimated 500 deer died from the virus in the Crooked River Ranch area, near Sisters, and in the eastern part of the Grizzly Unit near Prineville. The pile of AHD-killed deer recently discovered near Sisters confirms those fears from wildlife biologists that the disease will—and has—spread.
Then there's tuberculosis (TB) in deer and elk. In November 2001, a case of bovine TB in a domestically raised elk was confirmed at a ranch near Monument, Ore. As a result, 195 elk and 279 adult cattle from the ranch were skin tested, destroyed and examined for signs of TB.
After the "treatment" of eliminating the infected animals, officials found no additional TB-positive animals. To date—thankfully—wildlife biologists have no indication that TB is present in wild deer and elk populations in the area, but due to the seriousness of the disease, ODFW has developed a surveillance program focusing on the Northside Unit.
It's an ounce of prevention that's worth more than a pound of cure.
The most serious communicable disease deer and elk face, however, is Chronic Wasting Disease, a contagious untreatable illness in deer and elk.
This insidious disease has not (to my knowledge) been found in Oregon yet, but ODFW biologists are keeping a sharp eye on what's taking place throughout the West. Kunkel said, "Although the origin and transmission of CWD is not clearly defined, we do know it is found in the saliva, and if an infected deer or elk comes to a feeding station, it may be only a few days before an entire herd will be infected."
In the last few years, CWD has been found in free-ranging and captive mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk in Utah, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, and other western states. Yes, Idaho and Nevada are between Oregon and the infected animals of Utah, but with the advent of immediate communications and transportation, it's possible for the disease to enter Oregon unnoticed. By then it may be too late.
High-density deer populations will have a higher risk for the disease, due to the ease of transmission. For that reason ODFW biologists are encouraging people to avoid providing feed (including salt and mineral blocks) or water stations for deer because these activities may assist in spreading the disease if it is present.
The threat of AHD, TB, and CWD—coupled with the peril of inviting cougar close to human habitation—has prompted ODFW to study methods of prohibiting the public from feeding large game animals. What that may mean is formulating and passing laws that strictly prohibit feeding game animals, period. From the standpoint of human safety and big game wildlife health, that would seem like a very good idea.
Unfortunately, I have a sneaking junco there's someone feeding the mule deer that wander though my neck-of-the-woods, as there's one persistent old doe who keeps coming to my wife's kitchen garden, trying to get to her strawberries.
The other morning I shouted and waved my arms at that persistent doe. She had the audacity to just stand there, 20 feet away, glaring at me, defying me to chase her off. If that isn't the sign of a deer that's being fed by some well-meaning, but misinformed human, I'll eat me hat!
If our benevolent politicians in Salem would get their act together, work with wildlife biologists and get a law on the books that will stop people from feeding deer, my wife's strawberries would be safe and our mule deer would be a lot healthier.