Mysterious Bullwinkle deer appear around country
By Bob Frye
Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
What's next, squirrels with aviator goggles?
You wouldn't expect to see a critter looking like Rocky the flying squirrel of cartoon fame in the woods. But then, white-tailed deer that look like Bullwinkle the moose have started showing up across the country.
Deer with swollen, moose-like faces have popped up from Alabama to Delaware to Michigan since 2005. Scientists have examined a dozen or so, finding accumulated fluid in their muzzles — especially their noses and upper lips — each time.
What causes the disease, what impact it might have and how widespread it is remain unknown. In fact, the disease doesn't even have an official name yet. Scientists refer to animals with it as “Bullwinkle” deer.
“It's not like anything else we've seen in deer,” said Kevin Keel, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis school of veterinary medicine and the nation's leading expert on the malady.
“This is an interesting disease because we're not sure if it's new. It might be something that's always occurred but at such a low prevalence that maybe it was always there, and we just didn't know about it.”
That could be, as there are more people with more trail cameras looking for and at deer than ever before, said John Fischer, director of the 57-year-old Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia's college of veterinary medicine. But “new” diseases popping up seemingly from out of nowhere are hardly unheard of either, he said.
It's a mystery as to what's going in this case, he said.
“As for Bullwinkle deer, I cannot say if it is a new disease or it's just now made the radar screen after being out there for many years,” Fischer said.
The disease doesn't kill deer outright. Hunters and others have reported seeing such deer over two-year periods, according to information from Quality Deer Management Association spokesman Lindsay Thomas.
Keel said Bullwinkle deer suffer chronic weight loss that likely hastens their death by making them more susceptible to other forms of mortality, such as predation, weakness and being hit by vehicles.
The diseased deer examined so far — all whitetails, with the exception of one mule deer from Idaho — have been wild animals, Keel said. No farm-raised Bullwinkle deer have been reported.
There's “some correlation” to feeding of deer, but whether feeding is an issue or whether it's just that fed deer are more visible is unclear, Keel said. Beyond that, there's nothing linking them, he said.
The disease may or may not even be specific to deer, he noted, pointing out that something similar has been found in the withers and shoulders of South American cattle.
He and fellow researchers have “narrowed down” possible causes for the disease. He declined to discuss that until his research is published in a scientific journal.
“But it's a novel bacterial infection that we have not seen in white-tailed deer before,” he said.
Justin Brown, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wildlife veterinarian, did not return phone calls seeking comment on whether the disease has been found in Pennsylvania. But Keel said he believes it's probably here. That's not necessarily a cause for concern, he said.
“It doesn't seem to have any impact on deer populations,” Keel said.
Other diseases have come from out of nowhere to devastating effect, however.
White-nose syndrome in bats was only first discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-07. The fungal disease has killed more than 5.7 million bats — nearly 100 percent of some populations — across 22 states and five Canadian provinces since, according to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.
EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, the most common disease of white-tailed deer, was for decades largely a southern phenomenon, Keel said. It's spread nationwide in recent years, though. The Game Commission confirmed it in Pennsylvania in 1996, 2002, 2007 — when it killed thousands of deer in Western Pennsylvania — and 2012.
There's no reason to think Bullwinkle disease will have that kind of impact, Keel said. But then nothing's certain in this era of “emerging disease issues in wildlife populations,” he added.
“Things can change over time,” Keel said. “We'd just like to be prepared and forewarned.”
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.
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