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Devastating disease a growing threat to deer

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 9:53 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — GENESEE, Wis. — I spent the morning sitting in a ground blind, bow in hand and fall turkey tag in pocket.

Early fog gave way to drizzle and something else in the air — midges.

The insects flitted in and out of an open window in the blind. The summerlike weather had caused a hatch or rejuvenated insects that had survived earlier frosts.

The midge sighting turned my thoughts to the disease that is emerging as one the top deer stories in the nation this year: epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.

The disease has been confirmed in at least 15 states this year, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan.

As reported earlier, EHD is passed to deer by biting midges and causes internal bleeding and fever.

The disease can have significant impacts on local deer populations. In 2011, it killed an estimated 90 percent of white-tailed deer along a 100-mile stretch of the Milk River in Montana.

The disease was confirmed in Wisconsin in 2002, when it killed 14 deer in Iowa County.

But this year’s outbreak is the biggest ever recorded in Wisconsin and several other states.

It has hit the deer herd so hard in parts of South Dakota that wildlife managers there are offering refunds to hunters who purchased deer hunting licenses.

Nebraska officials voted last week to reduce the number of antlerless permits by 20 percent to 50 percent in 18 deer management units.

Michigan wildlife managers report more than 10,400 dead deer from EHD. The disease has killed deer “in substantial numbers” in at least 29 counties in Michigan this summer and fall.

In Wisconsin, EHD is the confirmed or likely cause of death of 345 deer, according to Eric Lobner, wildlife supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources.

The disease has been confirmed in eight counties: Columbia, Dane, Iowa, Jefferson, Marquette, Rock, Sauk and Waukesha.

Lobner said the DNR was not planning any changes to its 2012 deer hunting regulations or permit levels as a result of the EHD outbreak.

“The disease can have local impacts, certainly, but we don’t expect it to have a large enough impact in any deer management unit or region to require any changes,” Lobner said.

But at least some landowners are considering a “no doe” policy for the 2012 season.

In Waukesha County, Steve Williams operates a deer registration station at Wern Valley Sportsmen’s Club.

During the 2011 deer hunting season, the station registered 30 bucks. Williams says he knows of at least 30 bucks in the immediate area that died this summer and fall.

Several of the deer tested positive for EHD.

Williams said he hunted eight times on property near Genesee during the 2012 archery deer season and did not see a deer. He typically sees a deer each outing.

“That doesn’t leave us in a very good situation,” said Williams, 57, and a lifelong resident of the area. “I will not have antlerless deer harvested on my property this year.”

According to DNR records, the EHD outbreak has been especially pronounced in Dekorra Township in Columbia County; near Cambridge, London and along the Yahara River system in Dane County; near Janesville in Rock County; and near Mukwonago in Waukesha County.

As examples of the toll EHD can take on local deer numbers, one 40-acre parcel in Columbia County had nine dead deer and three properties covering 800 acres near London in Dane County had 81 dead deer this summer and fall, Lobner said.

The number of deer killed by EHD in Wisconsin certainly is higher than the 345 reported.

Many dead deer are never found. Others are too decomposed to determine a cause of death. And in counties where the disease was confirmed, the DNR stopped testing dead deer.

One Waukesha County landowner told me he recorded the image of a nice 12-pointer on a trail camera in August. In September, he saw the buck again. But this time it was dead near a creek.

He suspects the cause was EHD.

Will the warm weather and increased insect activity this week cause another rash of EHD deaths in Wisconsin deer? That remains to be seen.

More certain, however, is the chance of EHD reappearing in Wisconsin in 2013. The virus lives in the midge larvae. When the insects hatch in 2013, they will carry the disease.

Deer that have the virus but weren’t killed by it are also carriers.

There is no known effective treatment for, or control of, EHD.

The disease has been seen for decades in most areas of the United States, especially the south and southeast. It has been less commonly observed in Great Lakes and New England states, although it has been detected in Michigan in six of the last seven years.

Wisconsin deer, because they have had limited exposure to EHD, are considered “naïve” or especially susceptible to the disease.

As a source of mortality, the Wisconsin deer herd takes a much bigger reduction each year from hunters and car collisions and predators than it did this year from EHD.

But since wildlife diseases are rarely if ever eradicated, it will pay to keep an eye on EHD.

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