Texts telling of dead deer were clogging up my phone. E-mails showing grotesque pictures of giant velvet bucks, emaciated, half rotten, and long dead were going “viral”. The sheer numbers of dead deer were overwhelming. I love looking at giant dead bucks, but not in August. My area of Michigan had been hit hard; really hard. This silent killer was ravaging our once sizeable deer herd. What a sad way for these wise old warriors to pass. A devastating disease called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) was mercilessly having its way with our unsuspecting deer.
“I found two more today.”
“We found seven out back.”
“The total at Jim’s lease is up to twenty two.”
“One of them would have netted Boone and Crockett.”
No different than disease carrying mosquitoes who have decimated human populations throughout history, the midge that carries EHD and similar diseases is quickly claiming countless lives of whitetails. EHD isn’t new. Documented cases of it have existed in the United States for over a hundred years, but with the summer’s heat and drought, a “perfect storm” of whitetail death was created.
The record setting temperatures and dry conditions in much of the nation, forced deer to congregate near water sources more so than usual. Combined with the receding water line and high midge hatching rates, thirsty deer were sitting ducks for the infected biting flies. Mature bucks seemed to be getting profiled and stalked by the flies, but the reality was that due to their larger antler mass, they are more susceptible than the antlerless does. The velvet antlers are fair game for biting, therefore the bigger bucks have more of a surface area for the flies to target. Also, the midges are attracted to the bloody velvet that is being shed, inviting them closer to bucks for that reason as well. Smaller racked bucks and does get infected by flies that bite around their nose, eyes and ears.
Once most deer get bit by an infected midge, their days are numbered. About seven days after the bite, signs of the disease will start to set in. The deer will eat less, and lose their fear of man and predators. They’ll salivate and foam at the mouth, run a very high temperature, become progressively weaker, and eventually become unconscious before the mercy of death sets in. Open sores on the animals tongue and their mouth deteriorating are also signs of EHD, but are not to be confused by another hemorrhagic disease, “blue tongue”. Blue tongue is equally vicious, and many get the two confused, but it is a different disease than EHD. Once the initial signs of the EHD show, most deer usually have less than two miserable days of life left. Many EHD victims are found near a water source because the animal is attempting to cool itself by either drinking or bathing.
To hemorrhage means to bleed from ruptured blood vessels. If an autopsy were to be done on a deer that died of EHD, or in the case of the one my friend cut open out of curiosity, one would notice a pinkish/purplish bloody slurry flow from the opened chest cavity. Basically, the deer bleed out from the inside.
Whitetail deer are not the only ruminant to be affected by EHD. Documented cases of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, antelope, moose, and other animals have been recorded throughout the country over the years. Livestock can also be infected with EHD, although it is rare.
Fortunately, the disease seemed to hit certain pockets of deer hard, and skip others altogether. I hunt several farms in a twenty square mile area of Southwest Michigan. An example of the hit or miss effect is while I hunted my Easterly farms I rarely saw deer, and heard rumors of a battlefield type body count of dead deer on neighboring properties. One farm I hunt, right along a river, seemed to be crawling with scavenging buzzards and vultures. The birds were everywhere, gliding up and down the river, to the point where it became eerie. I thought at one point a few of them had seen me hiding in my tree, and were just waiting for me to keel over. I’m sure the vultures circling me were all in my mind, but I am certain that they were all concentrated along the river for a reason. I’m assuming dead deer were lining its perimeter, although I never bothered to look. Adversely, on the Westerly properties I hunt, some 10-15 miles away, I did not notice a difference in population. In fact, one farm seemed to have even more deer than usual. These Western farms I hunt are at a higher elevation, probably holding less biting midges due to fewer wetlands.
Although devastating to a deer herd, a strong EHD breakout does not mean all hope is lost. The first hard frosts of each fall bring a welcome disappearance of biting bugs like mosquitoes and midges. Also, some deer are infected and do not die. In fact, the survivors develop antibodies to the disease similar to a child with chickenpox. That deer will continue to live a normal life and not be bothered by EHD again. With surviving deer in the area, the herd will eventually rebound. Many state’s wildlife agencies went into “damage control” mode this fall and revoked the sale of potential deer tags. I know in my home state of Michigan, I received an e-mail from the DNR in early November saying the sale of extra doe permits in heavily hit EHD areas would be reduced. In the past, the famous deer laden area of the Milk River in Montana has struggled with EHD outbreaks. I have heard some of those precious areas have lost 80-90% of their herd in the past. It will take a hard hit area like the Milk River about 5-7 years to recover.
There are no practical cures for EHD. The best that state agencies can do is hope their hunters cooperate with harvest statistics and by also reporting dead deer they find. Hopefully they’ll be able to get an accurate count of the herd population and re-think their tag allotment for the next fall. EHD does not affect humans at all, but as with any game meat, it’s recommended that proper cooking techniques still be utilized.
Throughout the “Big Buck” states of the Midwest, EHD haunted hunters and deer managers all summer long. And we weren’t alone. Reports of EHD killed deer came out of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, spreading south to Texas and North Carolina. EHD seemed to be everywhere. What does all this mean for hunters?
Many dedicated outfitters and hunters simply canceled their seasons this fall. They looked at the big picture of the overall herd health and decided that they could not afford more loss. Some went to other properties that hadn’t been hit too hard, some took up fishing. I heard rumors of a few “honey do” lists getting taken care of, and others are almost ready to win their fantasy football leagues. Keep in mind, a few outfitters went about business as usual. These people ran their camps like nothing was different, charged for full value hunts, and many suffered incredibly poor success rates.
Due diligence, resourcefulness, and fact checking is going to be the trick for success for a traveling hunter in 2013. Nobody can afford to throw good money after bad and I recommend that anyone hoping to go on a fall hunting trip follow these simple guidelines.
Call the outfitter and find out exactly what counties you’ll possibly be hunting in. Ask about EHD, how many dead deer they found, and their management plans for the future. Outfitters depend on killing deer for their livelihood, but they also care about the animals. If they are in a heavily hit area, and worth their salt, the outfitter will be honest and share their strategies for adapting to the EHD outbreak. As always, ask for references of successful and unsuccessful hunters. Call them.
Once the counties have been identified, contact the state’s natural resources agency. Much of the EHD statistics can be obtained online. And if not, sometimes a good old fashioned phone call to a game warden is best. Ask for the truth on the 2012 EHD kill rates. Find out what counties were most affected, and what measures the state is taking to build the heard back to carrying capacity.
When planning a roadtrip, I always call a local taxidermist. Ask the same questions you asked the others. While you’re at it, also ask about the outfitter and what kind of operation they run.
Use “Google”. Whenever I have a question, I always ask Google. Submit a question like, “how many deer were killed from EHD in Barry County, MI?” You should be able to find documents from the wildlife agencies, as well as forum posts by local hunters. I’ve found that sometimes when things are good, local hunters won’t say much in order to protect their secrets. But, when things are bad, they’ll rant and rave about to anyone that will listen (or in this case, read).
Depending on what “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” is calling for next summer, we may, or may not have seen the last of EHD. Knowledge is power, so be sure to understand exactly what this pesky little midge can do to a deer herd. Do plenty of research, make phone calls, read online, and find an area to hunt that is worth your time and investment. Hunting is still hunting, and there are never guarantees. If an area has been hit hard by EHD, the chances of shooting a decent deer there will be slim. Not to mention, those areas need a break from hunting pressure anyway and a chance to rebuild their once numerous herd.