The last mule deer in Fairbanks is dead, a sad victim of civilization.
To some he was an immigrant pioneering a new land. To others, he was an invasive species.
“He’d been around two years,” said Tony Hollis, the Fairbanks area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The deer was killed by a product of technology – the motor vehicle – that made Alaska a far more hospitable place for people. The deer itself could have been a harbinger of civilization-linked Alaska warming now making the far north a friendlier place for wildlife.
“Reports of sightings in Interior Alaska have grown more frequent in recent years, suggesting their presence is part of the species’ natural movement,” a Fish and Game press release said. “In 2013, three were reported north of Delta Junction. Last year, a fawn was photographed in a North Pole driveway.”
Mule deer aren’t native to Alaska. Their range is generally thought to extend along the West Coast from Mexico into the southern Yukon Territory, Canada, although a subspecies – the smaller Sitka blacktail deer – is native to the Alaska Panhandle and has been successfully transplanted to Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island, where they now thrive.
“Mule deer are now seen as far north as Dawson (Yukon Territory, Canda), however they still remain vulnerable to severe winter conditions,” according to the Yukon Widlife Preserve, a zoo near Whitehorse, Yukon, where one can go to see mule deer.
The Fairbanks deer was not transplanted to Fairbanks nor was he an escapee from the wildlife preserve, the only known concentration of mule deer, about 500 miles south.
He appeared to have wandered north on his own. No one will ever know why, but he was clearly not the first of his kind.
A fawn, which would suggest mule deer are breeding in Alaska, would indeed be a hint that climate is shifting substantially. A lone buck, on the other hand, might simply be footloose. Young male animals sometimes have a tendency to take off on long distance adventures.
The Fairbanks deer, Hollis said, “looked like a yearling buck when he showed up. He would have been three” when he died.
Sightings of another mule deer, again a male, were confirmed in the Fairbanks area about five years ago, Hollis said.
The last time anyone reported seeing that animal, the biologist added, it had moved south along the George Parks Highway toward the wide-spot-in-the-road community of Nenana, and “then he just disappeared.”
Whenever deer show up in Alaska state officials grow concerned that the newcomer (or newcomers) could pose a threat to Alaska resident wildlife. Wildlife, like people, are highly susceptible to diseases for which they have developed no immunity.
The Alaska Native population suffered horribly when Europeans first migrated into the north.
“Native Alaskans had no natural immunity against the terrible diseases that swept through their people following contact with Europeans and Americans,” says LitSite.org, an Alaska website devoted to literacy and cultural diversity. “As a result, more Natives died from foreign diseases than any other cause.”
Modern medicine and a healthier Alaska economy eventually helped turn the tide on the scourge of civilization. Today most Native Alaskans enjoy a lifespan longer than their ancestors could have imagined, and there are more Natives than ever living in what is now the 49th state of the United States.
Humans have come a long way in figuring out to help each other. Helping widlife is a far more difficult proposition.
“Of concern to Alaska wildlife officials are parasites and diseases mule deer carry that could spread to Alaska’s moose and caribou. Introduction of moose winter tick is (veterinarian Kimberlee) Beckmen’s greatest fear,” the state press release said.
“‘This parasite has been detected in over 50 percent of the mule deer examined by wildlife officials in the Whitehorse area and is also found on moose, caribou, and elk in the Yukon,’ Beckmen said. ‘It is a parasite that kills young moose and can devastate moose populations.'”
The state is trying to figure out if the dead deer in Fairbanks was a carrier, but it is unclear what anyone could do if it was found the deer was infested.
Weather the issue?
Such a discovery would be bad news, but no one can predict how much of a problem it would present for Alaska moose. Problems with winter ticks appear to be tied to warmer winters in other states, which were already far warmer than Alaska.
Scientists in Minnesota are theorizing that a precipitous decline in that state’s moose population might be linked to just a few degrees shift in temperature which increases the heat stress moose must endure both summer and winter.
Moose, like many animals, thermoregulate their metabolism to adjust for seasonal variations. In winter, the Minnesota researchers found, the “upper critical temperature” for moose drops to 23 degrees. When the temperature climbs above that, moose start to overheat.
As a response, they cut back on eating. They lose weight. And in the process, they become more susceptible to disease, predators and parasites like the winter tick. Minnesota moose, of course, are more exposed to some dangerous diseases because of the proximity of that state’s large deer herd.
But warmer winter weather appears as if it could be a critical factor.
Alaska’s continuing cold (the state has warmed up, but not that much compared) might offer Alaska’s moose protection just as Alaska’s warming has in the past century offered the iconic animals new opportunities. Scientists have noted a significant increase in Alaska moose range tied to Arctic warming. Ranging in Alaska has been growing while range farther south has been shrinking due to warming.
Wild ecosystems are dynamic, which makes it hard to predict the future – any future.
A sad death
Wildlife biologists aren’t prone to get upset about wild animals dying. Death is, after all, the engine of the natural ecosystem.
But Hollis admitted to being a bit touched by the death of Fairbanks’ last deer. There is an irony to the animals demise.
It somehow negotiated its way safely north for hundreds of miles. It pioneered a large, new home range dangerously infested with bear, wolves and coyotes – not to mention random Alaskans with guns – who would like to kill and eat it.
And yet somehow it ended up being killed not by any predator, but by a car or truck. It become unreported roadkill, as most roadkill is, in a place where there are a miniscule number of roads compared to deer-country USA.
What are the odds on this?
And on top of that, Hollis admits to being a little befuddled as to how this deer, like others, showed up mysteriously in the Fairbanks area. How is it, he wondered, that no one ever reports seeing deer along the Alaska Highway, a seemingly natural navigation corridor, and yet the animals suddenly show up in the middle of the Interior almost 300 miles from the border.
Over the years, he said, all of the reports of first sightings seem to originate from around Eielson Air Force Base or Salcha just to the south of the Interior’s largest city. Nobody ever reports seeing deer farther south along the highway in Delta Junction or Tok or along the highway itself.
“I don’t understand it,” he said.