Oh, Deer – An Island Sized Pandemic 🦌

June 29, 2021

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Our part of Orcas Island is called Deer Harbor and in the harbor, you’ll find Fawn Island. On the other side of Orcas is Doe Bay and in between, there is Buck Mountain. These names are well earned as Orcas Island is (or was) overpopulated with blacktail deer. For as long as I can remember, encountering them has been an everyday experience, on the side of the road, in the yard, or anywhere there is food. 

Last month, just after we moved in, something changed. The deer became noticeably absent from our property and for a while, we shrugged it off and hoped they would stay away. But then neighbors started to report finding dead deer in their yards and strangely, in ponds. 

The cause of the deaths was a mystery and the island was abuzz with theories. People worried that they were getting into household chemicals or fertilizers, or that someone was poisoning them. Fewer deer would suit my tastes, but I didn’t like the idea of a human causing it. 

Soon enough a tissue sample was sent to the lab and came back with surprising results. The deer were dying of a fast spreading virus not unlike COVID-19 in humans. 

From a Seattle Times article:

A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian said the disease, called adenovirus hemorrhagic disease, poses no risk to humans, but also that the infection could soon spread to the mainland and carve out a permanent home in the state.

First discovered in California in 1993, the disease had been seen in Washington just once before this year. In 2017, about a dozen animals fell ill near Goldendale in Klickitat County.  

The San Juan Islands are serving as a nice petri dish for the disease to spread, which it does through close contact among deer. Like humans, the deer spread the virus by simply being together and from what I’ve seen, social distancing is not their priority. In fact, the deer swim between islands, so the disease is able to hop efficiently to new and relatively captive populations. 

I was relieved that it wasn’t a bad actor causing the deaths, but a natural phenomenon that just needed to run its course. But at the same time, death by hemorrhagic disease is a terrible way to go. The sick deer often have foamy mouths and bloody diarrhea, as their blood vessels start to hemorrhage. Ebola, one of the most feared human diseases, is a hemorrhagic virus. Poor deer. 

In 2019, a similar hemorrhagic virus swept through the rabbit population on Orcas. The virus only impacted domestic rabbits and domestic rabbits that were feral. A sad event, but one that did benefit island gardens for a while. Anecdotes suggest rabbit populations here are growing again.

In the short term, the island is dealing with many dead deer and everyone has stories of how they’re disposing of them. The county will pick up deer that are on the sides of county roads, but that’s a fraction of the island. Everyone else has to dig a hole or wait for the scavengers. Thankfully we have plenty of bald eagles and turkey vultures.

dead blacktail deer

We haven’t seen any dead deer on our property but did see a sick one. However, the stench is widespread. A nice evening outside might suddenly feel different as the wind shifts and carries with it the unmistakable smell of a carcass. 

Perhaps this is nature doing its thing. The island had too many deer, which have no natural predators aside from humans and car bumpers. Something had to give and in the long run, the deer and the island will be better off with a natural correction, albeit a sad one. Sachi likes to point out that the surviving deer may be the strongest ones and will create a new gene pool that could build back quickly. 

The deer have always shaped the Orcas landscape by mowing through tree seedlings that might otherwise grow into trees. This is true for our beloved madrona trees that, like our gardens, must be kept inside a fence to grow to adolescence. Some worried that the ever-growing deer population could prevent wild madronas from getting a foothold and eventually lead to a lost generation of the iconic trees. Maybe the virus will give the trees a break, too. 

Right now there are no solid data on the decline of the deer population, but my guess is that our sightings have dropped by at least 75%. We now go a week or more without seeing one, which makes them more of a novelty. The unfenced property around us is noticeably bushier and some of my supposedly deer resistant plants are more resistant than before. Silver linings, I suppose. 

From this experience, I take one big lesson. Whether they impact humans or wild animals, these viruses are real and do incredible damage, very quickly. While our experience with COVID may be on the wane, there’s a good chance more pandemics will follow. Unlike the poor deer, we are only helpless in the fight if we choose to be.

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