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Late-summer outbreak kills hundreds of whitetails

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia wildlife officials say a late-summer outbreak of an often-fatal deer disease has killed hundreds of Mountain State whitetails.

Jim Crum, deer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said hunters and landowners have been finding carcasses of deer killed by epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

"This year's EHD outbreak is not nearly as prevalent or widespread as the one we had in 2007," Crum said. "So far we've had confirmed mortality in Calhoun, Jefferson, Greenbrier, Hancock, Mason, Monroe and Pleasants counties. I don't have an accurate count right now, but the numbers are in the hundreds and not the thousands."

The disease, caused by a particular species of biting aquatic insect called a "midge," often occurs during the late stages of a hot, dry summer.

"Deer get hot and thirsty, and they go to streams and ponds to drink or cool off. Wet places like that are breeding grounds for the midges. When the midges bite the deer, they transmit the EHD virus," Crum explained.

Many deer that are bitten never contract the disease, but those that contract it often die from it.

"The mortality rate is pretty high," Crum said. "When it hits an area, the results are pretty obvious. We've had calls from concerned landowners, telling us they've found 11 dead deer here, or 13 dead deer there."

Though hunters and landowners often refer to EHD as "blue tongue," Crum said the two diseases are not the same.

"The viruses are similar, but what we have here is not blue tongue," he explained. "We have EHD serotype 2. Deer can get it, but cattle and humans cannot."

According to officials at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia, EHD has an incubation period of about a week. Once symptoms develop, infected deer grow short of breath, develop high fevers and begin to hemorrhage internally. Death occurs in one to three days.

People who find EHD-killed deer sometimes attribute the death to blue tongue because EHD's acute symptoms can cause the infected animals' tongue to swell and become discolored.

Crum said this year's outbreak is large enough to attract biologists' attention, but not large enough or widespread enough to affect West Virginia's 2012 deer-hunting seasons.

"There may be small pockets where the mortality rate is high enough to affect hunting, but in general this outbreak isn't large enough to affect the statewide deer kill," he said.

EHD outbreaks usually end a week to 10 days after frost kills off the biting midges.

"We're coming up on frost time, so it shouldn't be long before we've seen the last of the mortality," Crum said. "One of the drawbacks to opening our [archery deer] season so early is that hunters might encounter animals showing symptoms of EHD."

Crum urges hunters who find dead or dying animals to report them to the nearest DNR headquarters so biologists can take tissue samples.

"We send the samples to [the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study], and they tell us whether or not a new [variant of the disease] has made its way into the state," he explained. "So far, we've only had Type 2. Type 1 has been found in some surrounding states, and we're on the lookout for Type 6, which has been showing up in some Midwestern states, mainly in and around captive deer facilities."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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