THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- A mule deer that wandered into northwest Minnesota north of Thief River Falls was put down last week after displaying strange behavior and posing a safety risk to motorists along U.S. Highway 59.
Mule deer aren’t common in northwest Minnesota or northeast North Dakota, but the animals do occasionally stray into the region.
According to Doug Franke, area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Thief River Falls, the mule deer buck had been seen in the area with white-tailed deer since sometime last fall, but DNR officials weren’t made aware of it until last week.
The buck, which had a 2x3 rack, was about a year and a half old, Franke said.
After getting reports of the buck hanging out by itself along Highway 59, Franke and DNR conservation officer Jeremy Woinarowicz drove up to take a closer look early last week. The first time he saw the deer Monday, Jan. 14, Franke said he could get within 50 to 60 yards before it would run.
Within a couple of days, the mule deer showed no fear whatsoever, and there were reports of a motorist who had to physically shoo the buck off the road.
“At that point, it becomes a liability,” Franke said. “We determined for safety reasons we would take a look at it again and determine if it needed to be euthanized for safety reasons.”
Last Thursday, Jan. 17, Franke and DNR conservation officer Tony Elwell were able to get within 30 yards of the buck, and it didn’t so much as flinch, Franke said.
The decision then was made to have Elwell shoot the animal.
“It didn’t look injured as far as being injured by a car or anything,” Elwell said. “It was very lethargic looking, basically. I probably could have walked all the way up to it. It wasn’t behaving like a deer should.”
Physically, the buck appeared fine, Franke said.
“The body condition was really good, its physical appearance was good, but its cognitive health was suspicious,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like it was all there, if you want to call it that.”
The buck was taken to the DNR office in Thief River Falls, and Franke collected lymph node samples and removed the brain for testing, which is standard procedure for suspect deer.
He sent the lymph node samples to a DNR lab in Forest Lake, Minn., on Wednesday, and results should be available in a couple of weeks.
The brain can’t be shipped because it’s immersed in formalin and will be delivered to Forest Lake in early February, Franke said.
“As of (Wednesday), we don’t have any knowledge of what truly caused it to be, in a sense, unaware of its surroundings,” Franke said. “At some point, it just wasn’t aware of what was going on.”
Unlike whitetails, mule deer can get brain worm like moose or elk, Franke said, but deer with chronic wasting disease generally look and act fine and don’t appear disoriented or emaciated until later stages of the disease.
This buck, by comparison, was in good shape for mid-January.
As a precaution, the DNR is retaining the carcass until test results are available, Franke said.
“We get a handful of suspect deer every year that we do the same thing for, so it’s not unusual,” he said. “This one just happened to be a mule deer.”
The closest mule deer population is in western North Dakota, but this buck’s origin is uncertain, Franke said. There were no ear tags or other physical markings on the buck to indicate it was a captive deer.
“It wasn’t tame,” he said. “It didn’t show behavior as being a tame deer. It was completely unaware of what was going on. It was like a dementia-type brain dysfunction of some sort going on.”