A dozen moose calves in the Fairbanks and Delta Junction area may have died this winter from a disease that is rare in the ungulates and not previously recorded in connection with the death of an Alaska moose, according to a state wildlife veterinarian.
Some of the moose were examined shortly after they died in yards outside Fairbanks homes. They were reported by residents who saw the sluggish and slow young moose, said wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckman with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
On a couple of occasions, the calves bedded down with a cow but didn't get up in the morning.
"One (near Chena Marina) I was able to examine two hours after it died," she said.
The moose may have been infected with a disease similar to Adenovirus Hemorrhage Disease of Deer, or AHD, a disease that is limited to the deer family. Humans are not at risk of contracting the disease.
"It's species-specific," Beckman said. "It's like when you get a cold, your dog doesn't get sick."
Eight dead moose examined by Beckman "had definite signs" of the disease, two more had some indications of the disease and two from the Delta area had lesions consistent with the disease, she said.
If AHD is present in Alaska moose, it could mean future restrictions on how moose are handled by the state, including adding an obstacle to plans for transplanting moose from high-population centers to boost populations elsewhere. While confirmation of the finding is pending, Beckman said the department will be immediately cautious until more is known.
Identifying the cause of these deaths is an early step in what could be a long, and expensive, process. To determine if the disease is new and specific to the Fairbanks area or if it is present in moose or other deer statewide, or if it has been present for many years, would require numerous serum tests pulled from the thousands of blood samples Fish and Game has preserved over the years, she said.
Gary Olson, founder and chairman of the Alaska Moose Federation, a driving force behind moose relocation plans, is not overly concerned by the news.
"This just reiterates the fact that (moose calves) need to be carefully cared for, monitored, quarantined and that the program has to be done right," Olson said. "This is not a casual deal. We're not going to rush into anything."
Under a nuisance moose bill passed by the Legislature last year, groups like Olson's could capture and transplant moose under the state's supervision. Olson holds that nuisance moose cause millions in damage in urban areas when they could be transplanted to rebuild moose populations elsewhere. That effort would include relocating young moose orphaned after adults are killed on highways.
If all negotiation and planning falls into place, Olson said he could be gathering orphans this May with the intention of transplanting them in the wild this autumn.
"They would be under strict quarantine. If problems surfaced, there would be actions in place to deal with that," he said. "This is something that has been dealt with, overcome, in many other states. Utah moved 100 moose, and they have all kinds of issues. They've solved the problems we may or may not have coming up here."
AHD has been diagnosed in free-ranging mule deer, captive black-tailed deer and white-tailed deer on game farms in California and Iowa, as well as at animal rehabilitation centers in California. Just five moose in zoos have been reported with the disease, including two calves at a single zoo in Ontario, Canada, according to an Fish and Game statement. In 1998, a single moose blood sample of 50 taken near Fairbanks contained the antibody to AHD.
In California, movement of deer has been restricted because of the disease. If a deer is found injured or orphaned and a rehabilitation center is not located nearby, it will be euthanized, Beckman said.
Beckman is relatively sure of her finding but can not be certain until results return from samples sent to a veterinary lab at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
"I'm 90 percent there, but to absolutely prove it, you have to get it growing in a culture," she said.
The lab in Iowa is one of only two in the country that can do the tests.
"They have the deer strain," she said.
It is not known if this is something specific to Interior moose, if is new in Alaska moose, something that has been around for many years or something that first turned up in 1998 with that one positive sample.
Beckman, who is new to the department, started doing necropsies on winter-killed moose last year.
"We used to have a virologist who did test, I cut things up," she said.
She examined 30 moose last winter that died of a variety of causes, including parasitic and bacterial infections, but this year is different.
She said she believes if the disease was present every year and responsible for what biologists have historically lumped as "winter-killed" moose, she should have seen something last year, as well.
"This just screamed at me," she said. "I knew something else was going on."
The disease works quickly on calves, killing them within a few days of flaring up, Beckmen said. The results on the inside of the moose are gruesome. Inside the moose, the lesions exact a heavy toll and act like an adhesive, sticking organs to the inside walls of the moose.
"If you were a hunter and were gutting a moose and saw what I saw, it would be very noticeable," she said. "Imagine a belly full of melted mozzarella cheese. It sticks to walls and to the guts, if you rip it out it looks like tearing through half-melted mozzarella cheese."
It's not something hunters are likely to encounter, however. The disease usually strikes calves and manifests itself late in the winter, after the calves are stressed and weakened, and they die quickly.
That is part of the reason the disease is a bit of a mystery. It may have been around for decades, but the calf deaths may have been chocked up to the strains of surviving an Alaska winter.
"There's no telling what was going on in prior years," Beckmen said. "We lump things into winter kill, and they can die of a number of causes. It's a deep-snow winter and a lot of calves die. A calf is weakened by the disease, and it is caught by a predator, so it becomes a predator kill."
How it may have been transmitted to Alaska moose calves is not exactly known, she said. In deer, it is passed directly from animal-to-animal with direct exchange of fluids. Touching noses is one example.
Wild moose do not herd in groups as large as deer herds. It also may be passed through feeding where an infected moose has urinated.
There may be a few carriers in the population or all moose might naturally carry the virus, and it only flares up to a fatal level in the youngest and weakest in the population.
This is just speculation based on how viruses can act," Beckmen said.
Kelly Bostian is managing editor of the News-Miner. He can be reached at 459-7585 or firstname.lastname@example.org .