Utah testing area mule deer for COVID-19, which is spread ‘the same way it is in people’

Officials encourage Utans to avoid feeding wildlife to limit the spread of diseases.

(Courtesy of Jim Shuler) The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources urges Utahns to avoid feeding deer, moose and elk.

About 300 Utah deer are awaiting results to see if they’ve contracted COVID-19 — and yes, they endured a nasal swab.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is testing 300 of the state’s mule deer for coronavirus, after a recent study found the virus in white-tailed deer across 15 states. The deer were tested using blood samples and nasal swabs during the DWR’s annual big game captures, wildlife division spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley said.

“Our state veterinarian said researchers think initially COVID spread from people to deer, but there is evidence that they are spreading it to each other at this point,” Heaton Jolley wrote in a text. “It’s spread the same way it is in people, through respiratory secretions.”

While the jury is still out on whether Utah deer have contracted COVID-19, Utahns can still help prevent disease among deer, elk and moose populations by not feeding wildlife. The wildlife division is particularly concerned with the spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that attacks the nervous system of deer, elk and moose.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by the same type of particle as mad cow disease, and has been found in a few Utah counties. Animals with this illness develop brain lesions, become emaciated, appear listless and have droopy ears, according to a news release from the DWR.

Protein particles — called prions — transmit chronic wasting disease, and these particles can stay infectious for years. Animals can contract the illness through contact with another infected animal or through environmental contamination, such as through an animal’s excrement or saliva, although transmission rates from animals to humans is considered extremely low.

The disease is easily spread in areas where large numbers of deer, elk or moose congregate, which is why the wildlife division wants to avoid individuals feeding the wild animals.

Crowds of these animals can also cause increased traffic crashes or human/wildlife conflicts, since they will return to the area where they were feed in search of more food, the wildlife division said. And large numbers of prey animals mean large numbers of predators will follow — like cougars that follow deer herds.

Although it can be tempting to help a lone fawn, Heaton Jolley said people need to remember that a lone fawn can one day become a large buck — and may grow more aggressive with age.

“Our biggest recommendation is just leave it alone, let wildlife stay wild,” Heaton Jolley said. “You don’t need to feed them; they’re able to find food themselves. If it looks sick or injured, then obviously report that but otherwise, we just ask that people leave them alone.”

If you find a sick or in injured wild animal, the wildlife division recommends contacting an authorized Utah wildlife rehabilitator. You can find a list here: https://wildlife.utah.gov/rehabilitators.html