SALT LAKE CITY — An extremely rare melanistic mule deer nicknamed Coal by Moab residents died from chronic wasting disease, state biologists said Monday.
It was the 15th confirmed case of the disease, which is sometimes referred to as the "zombie deer disease," reported in Utah since July 1, 2019, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The agency received another positive test Monday afternoon from a deer in the division's La Sal Unit, bumping the state's overall number to 16, according to DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley. She said there are 59 other mule deer cases pending of the 1,500 deers sampled since July 1.
The disease is caused when a prion, a small infectious protein particle, attaches to the brain and spine of a deer, elk or moose, according to the agency. There is no known cure for it and thus is a fatal disease. Prion-caused diseases also include Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans and "Mad Cow Disease" in cattle; however, The Mule Deer Foundation points out the disease hasn't been known to infect humans.
Chronic wasting disease was first reported in Utah back in 2002. State wildlife officials say there have been 97 deer cases and two in elk cases of the disease from 2003 through Dec. 6, 2019. It has been confirmed across seven counties across eastern and central Utah, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease has also been confirmed throughout 281 U.S. counties in 24 states — including fellow western states Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico — as of November 2019, the CDC reports.
Coal's case is slightly different from other cases because the mule deer became an iconic member of the Moab community after he was first discovered in 2016. A melanistic mule deer coat is caused by an overproduction of the pigment melanin. DWR conservation officer Adam Wallerstein told KSL.com earlier this month that it's something possibly as rare as 1 in about 2 million.
When Coal was found dead in a backyard on Dec. 17, there were signs that the 3.5-year-old deer may have died from chronic wasting disease. Signs of chronic wasting disease include drastic weight loss, stumbling, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears and the lack of fear of people, according to the CDC.
"His body condition was poor. He had very little fat on his body and was not very heavy at all," Wallerstein said of Coal, on Jan. 13. "Aside from that, there was nothing physically wrong."
Biologists test a deer's lymph nodes to confirm the disease. Coal's results came back positive on Thursday, state wildlife officials said.
Meanwhile, plans are still in place to honor Moab's beloved rare deer. Community members and businesses raised $650 to have Coal's body sent to a taxidermy specialist in Grand Junction, Colorado. Once that process is done, he's expected to be housed in a public building in Moab.
As for chronic wasting disease, the Utah Wildlife Board approved changes to the state's mule deer management plan last month to combat it. That included “more fluctuation” of buck deer hunting permits each year to balance healthy deer populations.
“There is a lot we don’t know about chronic wasting disease,” Covy Jones, DWR's big game coordinator, said during the meeting on Dec. 6. “There are some things we know, but there’s a lot we don’t know. And we left it as an appendix so, as new research becomes available, we can update that and we can add those things in.”