Disease could mean loss of 70-percent of deer herd here

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Officials with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are carefully monitoring the deer population in Switzerland County and in all of Southern Indiana – as a disease called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, EHD, is threatening to wipe out as much as 70-percent of the area’s deer herd.

“I’ve been talking to everybody about this,” Indiana Conservation Officer Chris Powell said. “At the end of last week, Officer Steve Kinne and I had about 150 reported dead deer in Switzerland County, and I figure we’ve had at least 50 more since then, and hunters aren’t out in the woods yet.”

Chris Powell says that when hunters begin to go into the woods – archery season opens Saturday – they will find many more cases of the disease.

“We think over the weekend we’re going to be flooded with calls,” Chris Powell said.

EHD is carried and transmitted by a very small fly-like insect called a midge. Chris Powell says that midge reproduce and lay their eggs around water, so with the near-drought conditions that the county has been experiencing, the midge are congregating in large numbers wherever they can find a pool of water.

The problem is – that’s where the deer are, too.

“The lack of rain has definitely brought this on,” Officer Powell said. “There isn’t that much water out there for animals to drink, so they’re moving around trying to find it. When you put large numbers of deer in the same place as large congregations of midge, you have the potential for this type of problem.”

Chris Powell said that when an infected midge bites a deer, it causes the animal to experience fever, the become disoriented, and death comes relatively quickly.

Because of the fever, the deer stay in or near the water supply, trying to cool off. Once they’ve died, there is a danger that the water supply is tainted by the corpse.

“In many cases the deer have no fear of humans,” Chris Powell said. “They aren’t dangerous, in fact they are very lethargic, but I’ve had reports of deer walking up to farm barns just to get in the shade and try to cool down because of the fever.”

The disease is not something that is transmitted by sharing food sources or sharing the same group. It is transmitted from one animal to another by an infected midge.

The disease does not pose a threat to humans directly, as people cannot get EHD from a midge, but Chris Powell says that hunters and landowners should be careful when handling a dead deer that they suspect has died from EHD.

“We recommend that people take precautions when cleaning any wild animal,” the officer said. “People should wear gloves and make sure the area is as clean as possible. We are also telling hunters that any deer that appears to be sick or disoriented, they shouldn’t take the animal and they shouldn’t consume the animal.”

Chris Powell says that it seems very obvious that people shouldn’t consume any animal that they believe has been sick, but he says that he’s been getting that very question a lot from around the area.

“People need to be responsible before they shoot the animal and make sure that it doesn’t appear sick before they shoot it,” the officer said. “If they do, they are still responsible for tagging any animal that they shoot – sick or not.”

Chris Powell said that EHD is not a new disease to the area, and that every year he and other Conservation Officers find or get reports of dead deer in the woods.

The difference is that with the drought this summer, the deer have congregated, which makes the situation much worse. He did say that not all infected animals will die, and that they will develop immunities to the disease that will help them and future generations battle the disease.

Chris Powell also wants to dispel the rumor that DNR is considering the cancellation of deer season.

“We are not going to cancel deer season,” he said flatly.

What should a person do who encounters a dead or sick deer? Chris Powell says that people should contact district wildlife biologist Chris Grauel at the Crosley Fish and Wildlife Area in North Vernon at 812-352-8486. This way the spread of the disease can be more closely monitored.

Chris Powell said that the danger will continue until the area experiences a hard freeze, which will kill off the midge.

“It’s serious,” Chris Powell said. “It’s the largest outbreak we’ve ever had. It’s all over Southern Indiana. We’ve got a major outbreak.”

Jon Bond of the Switzerland County Economic Development Commission said that in 2006 Switzerland County saw an economic impact of about $425,000 for the deer season; with the Southeastern Indiana region – which includes Switzerland, Jefferson, Ohio, Ripley, and Dearborn counties – seeing an economic impact of about $1.4 million.

With Switzerland County being known all over the country as one of the best places to deer hunt in America, losing a large percentage of the deer herd here could also spell economic problems for local merchants who get a financial boost from hunters coming here and staying here.

— Pat Lanman