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The Mysterious Case of Bullwinkle Deer

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Deer are some of the most hardened animals out in the wild, so why are they suddenly experiencing this new infectious issue?

If you haven’t seen a deer overcome some of the strangest, scariest, and most ridiculous situations and still come out alive, then you haven’t been hunting enough.

The QDMA (Quality Deer Management Association) has reported a new affliction to deer populations, and it’s so new to the scientific community that it doesn’t even have a proper name yet. Doctors have coined the term ‘Bullwinkle deer’ to describe the appearance of the infection, which causes deer snouts to balloon in inflammation and gives their face the look of a moose. Some older hunters may be thinking back to their days watching “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and you’d be right in assuming that the moniker was coined from the vintage cartoon.

According to the QDMA, Bullwinkle deer came to their awareness in the mid-2000s when photos started coming in from hunters. The SCWDS (Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study) was apparently already on the case, but the illness’ origins were still a mystery.

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So, what’s going on with these deer? Thankfully the SCWDS recently released a report that goes over what every hunter needs to know if they happen to encounter one of these animals. Wildlife disease expert Dr. Kevin Keel gives some highlights:

1. When and where did this start happening?

  • Since 2005, SCWDS has received 10 samples of Bullwinkle deer from all over the whitetail’s range, with a far northern case in Michigan and the southernmost case in Alabama. The cases are widely scattered with no geographic patterns or concentrations, so it appears the problem is not easily spread from deer to deer, if at all. The photos above and on the right are of a deer killed by Gordon Murph in Alabama in 2008, showing the typical symptoms.

2. What causes this to happen?

  • The swollen snouts of afflicted deer result from chronic (long-term) inflammation of the tissues of the nose, mouth and upper lip. All of the cases involved similar colonies of bacteria in the inflamed tissues, but isolating the guilty bacteria has been difficult due to poor sample condition and contamination from many other non-guilty bacteria. How and where deer acquire the Bullwinkle bacteria is still unknown.

3. How long do scientists estimate this has been around?

  • All of the cases of Bullwinkle deer submitted by state wildlife agencies have been since 2005. No cases appear in 50 years of SCWDS files prior to that year. Is this because the disease itself is new, or because hunters can instantaneously share photos through the Internet now and our awareness of the rare disease is enhanced?

4. Is it lethal?

  • While the Bullwinkle infection is no doubt uncomfortable for the victim, it doesn’t appear to be lethal. All of the samples have been submitted from deer killed by hunters. QDMA has also received trail-camera photos of Bullwinkle deer that appeared otherwise healthy and that were photographed on multiple occasions over time. SCWDS said one person saw the same Bullwinkle deer several times over a period of two years. The photos below were sent to QDMA by Kevin Payne and were taken in South Carolina in 2011.

5. Are Bullwinkle deer rare?

  • Bullwinkle deer remain extremely rare (to the great relief of taxidermists), and the disease is not something to be concerned about. It is not a threat to deer populations, but it would be nice to know more about it. If you see or photograph a Bullwinkle deer, notify your state’s wildlife agency. If you kill a Bullwinkle deer, keep the head on ice (do not freeze it) and transport it as soon as possible to the nearest office of your state’s wildlife agency.

6. Okay, but can I eat it?

  • Should you eat a Bullwinkle deer if you kill one? We don’t recommend it. The long-term nature of the infection could mean that bacteria are present in the blood and muscle, or a secondary infection could also have developed. Better to be safe than sorry.

My beautiful picture

Well, there you go folks – another deer to keep an eye out for. We imagine these poor guys weren’t so prevalently reported prior to the mid-2000s due to the lack of trail cams and other photo capturing equipment used by hunters. As always, it’s great that we have organizations like QDMA and SCWDS to keep our deer populations safe.

Have you ever seen one of these deer before? What would you do if you came across one on a hunt? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Images via: QDMA

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The Mysterious Case of Bullwinkle Deer