Biologists to study rebound of whitetails in EHD areas

Lansing — State wildlife officials are working with Michigan State University and Safari Club International to study the impact of epizootic hemorrhagic disease on Michigan deer, and how local deer populations recover from significant die-offs that occurred in 2012.

Michigan DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason said experts estimate it will take between three and five years for deer to repopulate some areas in southern Michigan hit hardest by EHD deer deaths, but there is little scientific data specific to Michigan’s climate and deer habitat.

Mason said wildlife managers would like to more accurately predict recovery, and plan to study areas like the Maple River corridor in Gratiot County where it’s estimated up to 90 percent of the deer population was wiped out by the fatal disease.

“EHD is not a landscape phenomenon, it’s a very localized phenomenon,” Mason told Michigan Outdoor News. “We are going to try to understand how repopulation occurs.

“It’s an interesting study because (deer) territory size in Michigan is small and discrete, and determined by does,” he said.

The total number of confirmed deer deaths from EHD in 2012 was about 15,000, Mason said, but the actual toll likely was much higher.

“At the end of the day, we lost about 15,000 deer as far as confirmed loss,” Mason said. “If you expand that out (to include unreported EHD deaths) it’s probably more like 50,000 to 70,000.

“What’s interesting is that in general most people in southern Michigan had about the same season as 2011. We were able to lose this tremendous amount of deer and only in very limited areas did guys get smoked.”

EHD deer deaths have occurred almost annually in southern Michigan in recent years, appearing mostly during drought-like conditions that force deer to congregate around murky water sources where biting flies that carry the disease thrive. Mason said experts understand the biology behind the disease, and there’s virtually nothing that can be done to prevent it.

“What we don’t know is how long it takes the deer to recover, particularly in these areas that have been really whacked” by EHD deer deaths, Mason said. “We’re very concerned and hunters are too. The big question is: When will we see huntable numbers of deer” return to areas hit hardest by EHD?

MSU professor Bill Porter, the university’s Boone and Crockett Chair of Wildlife Conservation, is helping to organize the EHD study and said the project is still in the planning stage.

“We’re putting together a research proposal to look at developing a better way to predict when and where EHD is likely to erupt … and how long it will take local populations to recover,” Porter said. “We’ll compare southern and central Michigan so we can get a better sense of where and how (outbreaks might occur) each August and September.”

The study is important because, while EHD has occurred in the Michigan deer herd since 1955, the disease is becoming more common. States to the south have experienced similar EHD outbreaks, but deer there seem to have built up a resistance over the years, Porter said.

Michigan deer, however, could be more susceptible to the disease, and the study will help officials understand how EHD could impact the population in coming years, especially with climate changes that could contribute to the problem by creating favorable conditions for EHD and other diseases.

Porter said the study also could prove valuable for other disease outbreaks he expects to occur if Michigan’s climate continues its warming trend.

“Diseases are going to be a game-changer in wildlife management, and we’re going to see a lot more disease in the future,” Porter said, adding that a lack of cold winters will allow more diseases to take hold in Michigan.

Mason said DNR officials plan to break up Deer Management Unit 486 in response to last year’s EHD outbreak and other indicators of decreasing deer numbers in southern Michigan.

“We want to break up 486 into smaller units so we can more easily manipulate regulations in response to problems,” Mason said. “Some areas, but not all, will see a reduced antlerless harvest” quota.

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