Some people refer to white-tailed deer as ‘woodland rats’. And there are good reasons for the analogy; whitetails, like Norway rats, can be numerous, they scurry about and they harbor a plethora of diseases and parasites. Still, I like them.
But the disease part is very worrisome. There are two diseases in particular that I have to deal with that can only be described as ‘bad’.
In eastern portions of their range, many deer herds have infection rates of a parasite called the menigeal or brain worm as high as 80%. The worm lives happily in the brain of a deer, but if worms find their way into caribou, moose or elk, it results in sickness and often death. The worm survives by shedding eggs out the deer via feces, which are fed upon by snails and slugs. When these invertebrates crawl up on vegetation, some are inadvertently eaten by deer, returning a new generation of brain worms to the host. When there are lots of deer and snails, it’s highly likely almost every individual cervid will eventually eat an infected snail. It doesn’t do the whitetail deer any harm, but the other species aren’t so lucky.
I’ve never heard of a human with brain worm, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to get infected.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is another disease that’s worrisome. This one, though, is somewhat less discriminatory as to who survives: no one, at least as far as is known to date. Any whitetail or mule deer, moose or elk that gets infected, dies. Caribou with the disease have yet to be found, but likely only because they have not as yet come into contact with it. Humans don’t get CWD, at least not so far as is known.
The problem with whitetails and this disease is mainly the fact whitetails are so numerous and widespread. They’re everywhere, mixing with mulies, moose and elk (actually, they aren’t everywhere. But they do have a large range of distribution, much greater than mule deer, moose or elk). Only caribou in the far north have greater range occupancy than whitetails. There is little to no range overlap with deer and caribou – when this has occurred, caribou lost out quickly and completely.
This winter will reduce whitetail populations considerably across a huge swath of North America. For moose, elk and maybe even mule deer and caribou, that’s probably a good thing.
But like rats, many whitetails will survive. They survive severe winters by finding people willing to feed them, or finding some hidey-hole safe from predators where they’ll just sit tight and try to wait it out. Or something.
The white-tailed deer is a survivor. Just like the Norway rat.