When a rare black, melanistic deer nicknamed “Coal” by Moab locals was reported dead in a resident’s backyard in December, state wildlife officials wanted to investigate.
“The deer had basically grown up around Moab and was familiar to a lot of different residents. And it was pretty tragic when we found it dead,” said Aaron Bott, the Southeastern Utah’s Conservation Outreach Manager for the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources.
Without any sign of injury on this one in a million deer, Bott said his team decided to analyze ‘Coal’ for possible disease.
“And it turned out that the deer died of rather a frightening disease common among deer species, known as Chronic Wasting Disease,” Bott said.
Frightening for several reasons. Bott said Chronic Wasting Disease is caused by a protein particle called a prion that attaches to the animal’s brain and spine. Likened to “Mad Cow Disease,” an infected animal develops brain lesions, becomes emaciated, and may appear listless before eventually dying. The disease spreads through waste and saliva, and state wildlife managers worry about the way it can stay in a particular environment for years.
“And what's most frightening about this disease is that it can get in an area and infect the ground, and it can remain there for years. And then it can be spread to other deer that come into the area,” Bott said.
Since July 1, 2019, the Utah DWR has confirmed 16 positive cases of CWD statewide. Six of those cases, including Coal, are in what’s known as the La Sal Unit near Moab.
Locals called the rare melanistic deer a “town deer,” part of a group living in Moab neighborhoods, hanging out in backyards, and often spotted near the in-town creek. Bott said there is evidence to suggest Moab residents might be feeding these urbanized deer, which he said is a concern when it comes to spreading Chronic Wasting Disease.
“Feeding the wildlife is not a good idea, especially with a disease that is so contagious. These deer can easily spread the disease to one another. And then we have an epidemic in town and that's definitely what we don't want,” Bott said.
Coal was reportedly around three and a half years old when he died earlier this winter. Although wildlife experts said it’s difficult to quantify the number of deer who have the rare melanistic condition, it’s estimated to be around one in several million.
“It's much more rare to find a melanistic deer than it is to find it an albino or a piebald deer. So this was truly a unique animal. And it's sad that it has such a short life. It was fun for a lot of residents to watch it grow older. Sadly, it's life ended quickly,” Bott said.
Moab residents have plans to mount Coal in a public memorial.
Thanks to Molly Marcello from KZMU in Moab for covering this story. Visit kzmu.org for more of her coverage.