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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Whitetail Deer Populations On Brink Of Collapse?

Whitetail Doe
Across much of the midwest United States, whitetail deer populations are dropping dramatically due to a virus called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD for short.

This virus is spread by tiny gnats, called midges, to the local deer and during times of severe drought, the disease can kill thousands of affected deer.  Drought conditions cause the pond, creek and river levels to drop, allowing the midge to breed in the mud flat areas.  This results in very high populations of the midge, who then bite the deer.  This bite transmits the virus to the highly-susceptible deer who begin to suffer flu-like symptoms including high fever, confusion and internal bleeding.

Due to excessive thirst caused by the fever, the deer seek out water sources where they often die due to blood loss.  It isn't unusual to find the dead deer laying in the water where they were trying to cool down before death.  The deer who survive the disease appear to develop a long-term immunity from it.  EHD does not affect humans at all, even when they consume the meat of an infected animal.


Whitetail fawn
In the area near where I live, I have heard of as many as thirty dead deer being found near a single pond and about fifty dead deer found along a two-mile stretch of creek.  Deer sightings are down dramatically across much of the area as well.  Near Danville, Indiana, I used to see as many as a dozen or so deer per day but this year I have seen less than 10 deer total since the beginning of the summer drought.

In Indiana, at least 44 counties have reported deer deaths due to EHD.  DNR estimates the potential death toll to be in the thousands, and future hunting limits might very well need to be adjusted downward to avoid overpopulation.  Additionally, this disease could ultimately devastate predator populations, such as coyote, wolf and mountain lion, in areas where there isn't a substitute prey source such as small game or elk.


Mature Whitetail Doe
While whitetail deer are generally a very resilient species and can overcome many obstacles to survival, an epidemic such as this one can impact population levels for decades.  While there is no way to determine the total death toll, it could easily reach into the hundreds of thousands.  At last check, the states reporting significant EHD deaths include Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, South Dakota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Delaware, Oklahoma, Kansas and Kentucky.

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