Greensburg, Pa. — An otherwise common disease once rare here is back and killing white-tailed deer.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, more often known as EHD, has apparently been killing deer in deer in Beaver and Cambria counties, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission veterinarian Walt Cottrell.
Testing of samples from three dead deer – a buck and doe from Greene Township and Ohioville Borough in Beaver and a doe from Summerhill Township in Cambria – was still being conducted as of presstime. No results had been returned, or at least announced, from the University of Georgia’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Research Study.
But EHD is strongly suspected in the death of those animals, and more than 30 others, Cottrell said.
“While we must wait for test results to confirm just what caused these deer to die, at this time, we are suspecting that the deer died of EHD, based on field signs that we are seeing,” he said.
Whitetails in states all around the country are likewise suffering this year. Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, North Carolina and Delaware have all lost deer to EHD outbreaks over the summer.
The disease is the most common one afflicting whitetails. They contract EHD through the bite of insects called “biting midges.” The disease usually kills a deer within five to 10 days. It’s not infectious to humans, though the Game Commission advises against hunters eating any that display symptoms.
The disease was once largely confined to the southeastern United States.
“For years and years, we essentially had no occurrences of the disease in the Northeast. It was a nonfactor for us,” said Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist and education and outreach coordinator for the Quality Deer Management Association, who lives in Lycoming County.
It never showed up in Pennsylvania before 1996, when it’s suspected to have killed deer in Adams County. Tests were unable to confirm that, though.
The disease returned for sure in 2002 and 2007, though, with that latter outbreak claiming thousands of deer all across the southwestern corner of the state. That year was the worst on record nationally for EHD, Adams said, with the highest concentration of the disease recorded in Albany, New York, of all places.
Locally, that prompted a lot of concern among sportsmen, enough that the Game Commission held a public meeting at the Greene County fairgrounds in Waynesburg to discuss things. That drew an overflow crowd.
EHD hit in Northampton and Erie counties last year.
The reason for the disease’s spread northward, and for its prevalence this year, is not clear. Scientists at the Southeastern Wildlife Cooperative Research Study were not available for comment.
Adams, though, said theories abound, most of them centered around the warmer, drier summers experienced throughout the Northeast. The thinking is that weather allows the midges to spread northward and survive longer, to the detriment of deer.
Whatever the cause, the disease has been on the warpath this year, he said. In Michigan, for example, the death toll among deer went from zero to more than 1,000 within a week of that state’s wildlife agency confirming its presence, he said.
“This year is setting the stage to be very bad,” he said.
The commission has been assuring hunters that outbreaks typically do not impact deer herds long-term. Cottrell said populations can bounce back quickly.
That doesn’t meant hunters won’t notice any impacts, though. Adams said it’s true that the disease does not impact herds on a management-level scale, as wildlife agencies tend to say. But herds can be hurt on a local level for a period of time, he added.
“To the average hunter, who hunts on a property level, it can be a huge problem. If a bunch of the deer in your area are dying, you can certainly notice it for period of time,” Adams said.
The disease will go away with the first hard frost, which kills the insects that transmit it, Cottrell said. Deer that survive the disease can develop antibodies that protect them against future outbreaks, too, Adams said.
Until then, though, there’s not a lot than can be done, other than for sportsmen to report sick deer where they find them. The commission is asking residents to report sightings of sickly-looking deer, particularly those found near water, by calling 724-238-9523.