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Rare black deer dies of chronic wasting disease in Moab

The young 3-year-old deer had a rare melanistic condition that overproduced the melanin pigment. This caused the animal to be a dark color. It's hard to quantify how many animals there are with this condition because of how rare it is. (Photo: Steve Ross)

MOAB, Utah — Recent test results confirmed a rare black deer in Moab died of chronic wasting disease: a rare, fatal disease that affects the nervous system of deer, elk and moose. The deer was well-known and loved by the residents of Moab.

Moab residents found the black deer, who they called Coal, lying dead in a Moab backyard Dec. 17. The Utah Division of Wildlife Services removed the body to perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

After the deer died, residents gathered together to memorialize Coal by mounting him, with a Colorado taxidermist offering to cover some of the costs. Residents and officials haven’t determined the location of the memorial, but say it is likely to be mounted in a public Moab building.

A black deer

The young 3-year-old deer had a rare melanistic condition that overproduced the melanin pigment. This caused the animal to be a dark color. It’s hard to quantify how many animals there are with this condition because of how rare it is.

There’s estimated to be around one in several million — making the deer rarer than the albino or piebald mule deer.

“This unique deer touched a lot of people’s lives in this area,” DWR conservation officer Adam Wallerstein said in a press release sent to KSL NewsRadio. “Coal is responsible for putting smiles on a lot of faces during his life. The community will feel his absence.”

Coal dies of chronic wasting disease

Over a month after the young deer died, test results confirmed Coal died of chronic wasting disease Jan. 23. The DWR confirmed the first Utah case of CWD  in 2003. Since then, the division has performed extensive monitor the disease and its prevalence in the state each year.

DWR officials regularly update the Mule Deer Management Plan, which includes a section that addresses ways to slow the spread of the disease in Utah.

CWD is caused by a protein particle call a prion that attaches itself to the brain and spine of its victim. It’s often compared to “Mad Cow Disease” found in cows.

The protein infects animals, causing severe symptoms until the animal dies. Symptoms include: lesions in the brain, emaciation, droopy ears and excessive salivation. Infected animals can transmit the disease through its urine, feces and saliva — or it can be directly transmitted through the soil after the animal dies, making the area susceptible to environmental contamination.

The disease is not widespread throughout Utah, but is mostly found in a few counties in central and Eastern Utah. The DWR has confirmed 15 positive cases of CWD in deer statewide since July 1, 2019. Sixty test results are still pending.