Dry season means diseases for deer

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Deer danger: White-tail deer may be in more risk for certain diseases due to the extremely dry weather this year. | Staff photo

Though the dry weather this year allowed for more time spent outdoors, it could come to hurt what outdoorsmen like to do most.

This summer’s drought could result in more white-tailed deer contracting a potentially deadly disease, EHD, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish & Wildlife.

The state agency said while Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease strikes white-tailed deer every year, there is evidence that the outbreak may be worse during drought years like the one most of Indiana just experienced.

This doesn’t mean hunters need to be especially wary during deer season. While the disease can be fatal for some deer, IDNR conservation officer Gene Davis said he’s not heard of any deer in Northwest Indiana dying from the disease. And Linda Byer, wildlife biologist with District 2, the Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area, said humans are at no risk for getting EHD in any manner.

“The disease doesn’t affect people, even those who feed on deer,” Byer said. “The deer are safe to hunt.”

Byer said the disease, like another form of hemorrhagic disease, bluetongue, is spread through the exchange of blood when certain flies — such as midges, sand gnats and no-see-ums — bite the animal.

“The flies breed in mud flats, and their breeding grounds become larger as the mud recedes during a drought,” she said.

The symptoms

Although the viral disease was first reported in 1955, when several hundred white-tailed deer died abruptly in both New Jersey and Michigan, experts believe it dates back to the late 1800s. It usually strikes in the late summer and early fall, when the flies are most abundant, and comes to a screeching halt when the temperatures drop below freezing.

The differences between bluetongue and EHD are virtually indistinguishable, according to Byer. A white-tailed deer will develop symptoms of illness about seven days after exposure. The deer may initially appear depressed or feverish. They lose their appetite and fear of man and grow progressively weaker, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The affected animal may have a blue tint to the tongue or eyes, ulcers on the tongue, sloughed hooves or an eroded dental pad. They often are found in or near a body of water.

Many deer will survive the disease, while others will die within three to five days of contracting it.

Wildlife officials say the severity and distribution of the disease varies and is unpredictable. Not every deer will even contract the disease, even in an affected area. The number of deer succumbing to the disease could be negligible, or as high as in the 50 percent range.

One thing is certain, though; severe outbreaks rarely occur in subsequent years in a single area due to an immunity gathered from previous infections.

There is no known effective treatment or management for hemorrhagic diseases.

If you suspect a deer is suffering from bluetongue or EHD, the IDNR asks that you contact your local wildlife biologist. The phone number for District 1, which covers Lake, Porter, Newton and Jasper counties, is (219) 285-2704. Byer is the wildlife biologist for District 2, which includes LaPorte, Starke, Marshall and St. Joseph counties. She can be reached at (574) 896-3572.