Deadly for Deer - Winter 2007


ehddeer.jpgThis year's outbreak of the disease is the largest in 30 years.

Disease outbreak biggest in 30 years
By Dave Baker

When Marion County resident Michael Kelty telechecked a doe in the evening of the last day of modern gun season, it was the 100,000th deer reported taken by a hunter this season.

Despite fears that this year’s widespread outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) had devastated the state’s whitetail herd, hunters in Kentucky took more than 100,000 deer for the eighth straight year.

“We’ve had an outstanding season this year, and we’ve seen hunters take some good bucks,” said Senior Deer Biologist David Yancy. “Unfortunately, all that people are going to remember this year is the outbreak of EHD.”

This year’s outbreak of the disease is the largest in 30 years. Wildlife Disease Biologist Danny Watson said he received more than 4,200 reports of deer killed by EHD from 112 counties. The actual number of deer killed by EHD was larger and likely was present in the remaining eight counties, Watson said.

The last significant outbreak of the disease occurred in 2003, when the department received reports of dead deer in seven counties.

“The reason we had a statewide outbreak this year was because of the drought – that played a major role in the distribution of this virus,” Watson explained.

The virus that causes the disease is carried by biting midges. These insects breed in shallow, stagnant water and mud flats – the same conditions created by this year’s statewide drought. Deer also concentrated in lowland areas and around water sources, where the concentrations of the midges is the highest.

Department officials received their first report of a deer killed by the disease from Clay County on July 17. A week later, reports of dead deer escalated in the Green River region. Because of the large amount of mud flats in that area, the Green River region had 35 percent of the state’s reported EHD deer kills. The outbreak ceased once cold weather starting killing the midges.

The disease wasn’t limited to Kentucky. Officials at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study group, based at the University of Georgia, documented cases of EHD this year from California to New York. The virus was not a new or more virulent strain, the group noted in its newsletter, but a common one documented since the 1950s.

How many deer died from the disease this year in Kentucky? While there is no way of knowing for certain, the number of deer taken by hunters this year does offer some insight.

Through the end of this year’s modern gun season, hunters checked in 100,488 deer. (At the start of the season, Kentucky had an estimated 900,000 to 1 million deer.) In 2006 – a banner year for deer – hunters reported taking 109,069 deer. In 2005, hunters had killed 100,137 deer by the end of modern gun season.

In 16 counties located north of Lexington, hunters recorded a three-year high for the number of deer taken. In Owen County, the state’s biggest deer producer, hunters took 3,335 whitetails through the end of modern gun season compared to 3,013 the previous year.

Several counties in western Kentucky’s “buck belt” showed significant decreases in deer harvest. In Ohio County, hunters killed 1,505 deer through the end of this year’s modern gun season compared to 2,122 last year. Ohio County had 112 deer reported killed by EHD, ranking it ninth in the state. In Muhlenberg County, where 121 deer were reported killed by EHD, hunters took 1,036 deer through the end of modern gun season compared to 1,624 the previous year.

Other major counties showing decreases in hunter harvest during this hunting season include Butler, Christian, Hopkins and Breckinridge counties. Crittenden County, the state’s second-largest deer producer, also had the most deer reported killed by EHD, at 206 animals. Hunters in that county took 2,613 deer through the end of modern gun season, compared to 2,795 last year and 2,336 in 2005.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Big Game Coordinator Tina Brunjes noted that this year’s modern gun season deer harvest is similar to the 2003 and 2005 seasons. “That tells us that the impacts of EHD were localized,” she said. “If EHD did have a major impact on our deer herd, then we should have seen a greater effect on the deer harvest.”

Deer harvest numbers also may be skewed this year because fewer people are hunting them. Through the end of modern gun season, 11,409 fewer people bought a license or permit that allows them to hunt deer than in 2006. The loss of deer hunters could coincide with this year’s price license increase, or hunters may have been scared off by media reports of diseased deer.

Wildlife Division Director Karen Alexy said she might recommend deer zone changes for the hardest hit counties at the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission’s wildlife committee meeting in February. “Although we lost some animals in localized areas, we still have a booming deer herd in Kentucky,” she said.

Deer populations in the most affected areas will likely recover in 1-2 years, she added.

Meanwhile, Watson said not to expect similar outbreaks of the disease any time soon. Deer that lived have built up immunity to the disease. “The deer herd in the entire state has probably been inoculated for a couple of years,” he said. “We won’t have much activity for EHD in the near future.”