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Deer herd appears to hit stable point in Illinois

Posted on August 9, 2012

Harrisburg, Ill. — Reports of dead deer in southern Illinois have trickled in this summer, but the state appears to have avoided an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhage disease, which historically has been a problem during drought conditions.

Meanwhile, chronic wasting disease remains contained to a designated northern Illinois “hot spot.” As of the last day of July, DNR had confirmed 36 cases in eight counties, down from the 42 CWD cases reported at this point last year. Since the disease was first found in the state’s deer herd in 2002, there have been a total of 372 confirmed cases.

And then there’s the magic number: wildlife officials now put the size of the state’s deer herd at 700,000 to 750,000 – after years of estimating the top end to be around 800,000.

“This is closer to where we believe it should be,” Tom Micetich, DNR’s deer program manager, said. “The health of the herd seems to be good, even in the hot and dry conditions. At this time, we are not experiencing the blue tongue or EHD that can come with a drought. That’s not to say there aren’t isolated cases out there.”

EHD, a virus spread by biting flies and midges, kills a number of Illinois deer every year, but extremely dry conditions tend to escalate things. The most recent outbreak came during the dry summer of 2007, when DNR received 449 reports of 1,966 dead deer in more than 50 counties.

To put those numbers in perspective, the next summer, in 2008, DNR received only 27 reports in nine counties. In 2011, DNR received 14 calls from eight counties reporting 38 dead deer.

Micetich noted that it’s still too early to determine the extent of the effect of this summer’s drought. Many reports of deer carcasses usually come in once bowhunters have taken to the woods and discover the deer. Farmers also tend to find carcasses hidden in their fields during harvest.

How drought figures into the equation is rather simple.

“Drought limits the water sources, putting more deer and the insect vector [flies and midges] in close proximity,” Micetich said. “Whenever we see several dead deer in a pond or some other water source, we get concerned. But what we also have learned is that sometimes a deer is hit by a vehicle and stumbles into a pond and dies. So we have to be sure before we say ‘EHD’ or something else.”

CWD has managed to stay out of the spotlight, for the most part, in 2012 – not counting the ongoing battle of DNR’s sharpshooting program in a handful of northern Illinois forest preserves.

The deadly disease is getting attention nationally because Iowa recently reported its first case. Texas also has a positive case this year, and earlier this year Missouri announced that it has found CWD in deer.

In Illinois, Kane and Winnebago counties each had seven positive cases in 2012. Boone, DeKalb and Grundy each had five confirmed cases. McHenry followed with three, while Ogle and Stephenson reported two each.

Jo Daviess and LaSalle, which had previous CWD reports, did not have a confirmed case this year.

Overall, DNR is pleased that no new counties were added to the CWD list this year.

“The hot spot is still the hot spot,” Micetich said. “I’d say the good news is that we haven’t seen an increase. But we’re still testing, and we will be sampling and testing again this fall.”

All CWD testing is conducted at Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Laboratory located at Centralia, which is certified for CWD testing by USDA.

Sampling is accomplished primarily by collecting tissues from hunter-harvested deer, road-killed deer in known CWD-infected areas, deer taken under authority of urban deer population control permits, nuisance deer removal permits and deer taken by DNR sharpshooters in CWD areas.

The latter method has created a stir among hunters who feel the sharpshooting program is decimating the deer population.

In March, DNR announced it was going to take a look at its deer management program to determine its effectiveness.

The public will play an important part in the process.

“How many deer do the people of Illinois want? Some think we have too many, some think we have too few,” Jim Herkert, DNR’s resource conservation director, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s a social question. We’re trying to get a good read for where people want to be.”