Unexplained deer deaths spiking in Ashland

State wildlife biologists are trying to uncover why seemingly healthy black-tailed deer are dying in droves within Ashland's city limits.

At least a dozen healthy-looking deer have died in city backyards in the past two weeks, prompting Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Niemela to seek lab tests for diagnoses.

Field necropsies done on two deer this week revealed that these animals did not die from ruminitis, a disease killing Jacksonville-area deer that were fatally fed corn by residents there, Niemela said.

"They had lots of fat and looked like healthy animals, but were dead," Niemela said.

Organ-tissue samples from two deer found dead Tuesday were shipped Wednesday to the ODFW's veterinarians for tests.

One of those two deer showed possible signs of the adenovirus, a highly contagious disease that earlier this decade wiped out deer around Ashland, Jacksonville and other areas where the animals had unnaturally concentrated because some people were feeding them.

One of the dead deer was a fawn with a plastic grocery bag in its stomach, Niemela said.

Niemela said it was premature to conclude the adenovirus has resurfaced here.

"Hopefully the lab will give us a better diagnosis," he said.

Public works crews occasionally get calls to remove dead members of Ashland's bountiful herd of "city deer" that regularly roams neighborhoods, Lithia Park and even the Southern Oregon University campus, said utility worker Dan Gunter.

But calls came in regularly starting last week, with two in two days and four on Friday, he said.

"Four in one day? That was unheard of for us," Gunter said. "Their fur was in good shape and healthy-looking, but they were dead."

Some of the deaths were gruesome, residents said.

For three days last week, a doe stayed bedded down near Al Alsing's house in the 900 block of Walker Avenue, three blocks above the boulevard.

"I left her there and could see she wasn't getting anywhere," Alsing said. "It was healthy, up to that point."

The last day, the doe was convulsing, Alsing said. He telephoned Ashland police, and an officer shot it, he said.

Alsing said he knows of no neighbors who feed the deer.

Jacksonville residents placing food and water out for blacktails were blamed in 2001 for the state's first documented outbreak of the so-called adenovirus hemorrhagic disease.

The virus attacks the deer's mouth and/or digestive tract, causing a bloody diarrhea that can scour the animal or mouth lesions that keep it from feeding. A deer can catch the virus simply by breathing air from an infected animal.

Humans and pets are not considered at risk. While the adenovirus has similar strains affecting cattle and sheep, there are no known instances of the virus spreading from deer to other animals.

ODFW state veterinarian Collin Gillin said the known adenovirus outbreaks in Oregon typically occur in Southern Oregon and around Bend.

"Any scenario where folks are feeding really increases the chances of it," Gillin said. "I wish people would stop it."

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