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Rare black deer in Moab dies of chronic wasting disease

With six cases identified in the Moab area since July, wildlife experts worry the neurological disorder could impact Utah’s deer population.

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Coal, the rare black deer loved by Moab residents, died last month from chronic wasting disease.

Steve Ross

MOAB — Three years ago, a peculiar animal emerged as Moab’s unofficial mascot — a rare black deer nicknamed “Coal.”

His black coat was the result of a condition that caused an overproduction of melanin which, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, made Coal “one in several million.”

“All around town you could catch glimpses of him,” said Moab resident Sherri Costanza.

Coal was found dead in a Moab resident’s backyard in December.

On Monday the DWR announced Coal died of chronic wasting disease, a relatively rare but deadly neurological disorder transmittable among deer, elk and moose. With instances rising across the state, experts worry the disease could severely impact Utah’s deer populations.

“The trend seems to be that it’s slowly increasing,” said Annette Roug, a wildlife veterinarian for the agency. Since July, the division has identified 16 cases of chronic wasting disease in Utah, six in the Moab area alone.

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Coal, the rare black deer loved by Moab residents, died last month from chronic wasting disease.

Steve Ross

The disorder is similar to mad cow disease, causing brain lesions that eventually lead to death. Infected animals are scrawny and lethargic, with droopy ears and excessive drooling.

There have been no reported cases of chronic wasting disease in people, although the DWR advises hunters not to harvest any animal that appears sick. According to the CDC, studies suggest that nonhuman primates are at risk of infection after eating animals with the disease.

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Utah in 2002 when a hunter outside of Vernal noticed the buck he shot was unusually sickly. Since then the DWR has identified 112 mule deer and two elk with the disease.

“We are still fairly fortunate in Utah,” Roug said. “The prevalence of chronic wasting disease in the areas that are affected is relatively low compared to Colorado and Wyoming.”

Still, the rising prevalence has been the subject of concern at the wildlife agency. The division has several strategies to combat chronic wasting disease, including sampling deer populations annually in areas where it’s been detected. If left unattended, the disease could have devastating effects on deer, elk and moose populations.

“You’re going to start losing adult animals very fast,” Roug said.

The DWR has sampled 1,500 deer for chronic wasting disease since July — 59 test results are still pending.

Although Costanza will no longer see Coal wandering around Moab, the beloved deer will live on. This month, residents pitched in to send Coal to Darryl’s Taxidermy in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the rare black deer will soon become a piece of Moab’s history.

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Coal, the rare black deer loved by Moab residents, died last month from chronic wasting disease.

Steve Ross