Outdoors: Disease takes toll on local deer herd

By Mike Zlotnicki

The white-tailed deer harvest was down by half in Franklin County this past season. Several other neighboring counties were hit hard as well. A disease transmitted by midges is to blame. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The white-tailed deer harvest was down by half in Franklin County this past season. Several other neighboring counties were hit hard as well. A disease transmitted by midges is to blame. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Deer sightings and hunting harvest were down in Franklin and surrounding counties during the 2014 season. There were two main causes, depending upon where you were hunting: a large mast (acorn) crop and localized out breaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

“District 3 (which includes Franklin County) was hardest hit,” said Greg Batts, a wildlife biologist who works in District 3. “We have electronic harvest data, and it suggests about a 15 percent decline statewide with some very localized harvests down as much as 50 or 60 percent. But, we also had people complaining about seeing fewer deer in areas where there was no outbreak.”

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is the most common disease of white tailed deer. It is caused by two types of viruses, one produces Blue Tongue and the other Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease. The symptoms of the two viruses are very similar, so they are both called EHD.

These viruses are transmitted to deer by biting midges (no-see-ums or gnats). There is no direct transmission from animal to animal. The disease occurs every year to some extent throughout the state. Depending on local weather conditions (wet weather increases midge populations) and acquired collective herd immunity, some areas of the state may have more severe outbreaks of the disease than others.

A huge mast crop kept deer from traveling to search for food and meant they stayed away from hunters’ bait piles of corn and other attractants.

Other counties with localized EHD losses included Durham, Granville, Orange and Pitt.

Another reason losses were higher this year was the discovery of the Variant 6 strain of the EHD. In years past, Variant 1 and Variant 2 were found to be the cause. If the deer survived being infected with those strains, they were immune afterward. It is not known whether deer that survive the V-6 strain will have immunity going forward.

EHD has occurred throughout the Southeast for a long time. Experience with the disease indicates deer populations rebound to pre-disease levels in two to three years. Wilkes County had a similar outbreak in 2012 and the harvest levels rebounded quickly.

There is no way of knowing exact losses due to this disease. Based on previous experiences with EHD, the Wildlife Commission has no plans to alter harvest limits or seasons for the 2015 white-tailed deer hunting season.