State wildlife officials are working to determine the severity of disease in white-tailed deer in southwestern North Dakota. A large-scale outbreak could impact hunting in the region this fall.
The state Game and Fish Department since August has documented deer deaths due to epizootic hemorrhagic disease -- commonly called EHD -- in Morton, Emmons, Grant, Dunn, Billings, Stark, Hettinger and Adams counties.
Compiling hard data on case numbers is difficult because most of the evidence is word-of-mouth from landowners, but the department has received dozens of reports, according to state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.
“It’s enough where it’s gotten our attention, and we’re going to want to do more investigation … to gauge the intensity of this die-out,” he said.
Game and Fish is asking the public to report any sick or dead deer. Reports should include the species, age, gender and location of the deer, along with pictures if possible.
“In some cases, we may need to collect samples off fresh carcasses, so please notify the department as soon as possible,” department Wildlife Veterinarian Charlie Bahnson said.
EHD is a viral disease transmitted by biting gnats. It’s been present in North Dakota for decades. It impacts white-tailed deer more than mule deer, due to the makeup of the animals. It’s not considered a danger to people, though hunters are cautioned not to eat meat from a deer that appears to be sick.
“We see a low level of EHD activity most years, but every so often, several environmental factors line up to make for a bad season, particularly in the southwest,” Bahnson said.
The gnats can become a problem if wet conditions early in the year create mud flats that dry out later in the year -- perfect breeding areas for the insects, according to Williams. There also needs to be plentiful deer numbers, and “in a lot of these areas right now we have that,” he said.
There isn’t much that wildlife officials can do as far as managing the disease -- outbreaks end only after a hard freeze kills off the gnats.
“One ability we have is to offer (hunters) refunds in those areas,” Williams said.
The region saw a particularly bad outbreak in 2011, when deer deaths occurred well into October and prompted Game and Fish to offer refunds to more than 13,000 hunters with whitetail tags in 11 southwestern units.
There was another outbreak in the region in 2013. Game and Fish that year decided to hold back about 1,000 licenses in three southwestern units.
“At this point we do not believe EHD has caused significant mortality like it did in 2011,” Bahnson said.
Game and Fish is turning to the public to help confirm that, particularly hunters who are around water areas such as creeks and dams that typically are not frequented by people. Deer go to those areas when they get the virus and a fever, and they die there, according to Williams.
Pheasant seasons begin with youth hunting this weekend and the general season starting next weekend, and tens of thousands of hunters will be outdoors. What they report could have a big influence on whether Game and Fish considers offering refunds to deer hunters in some areas.
“We’re going to take a wait-and-see approach, as we get more eyes and ears out in the fields in the next couple of weeks, and see what the weather pattern does,” Williams said. "We're hoping like heck for cold freezing temperatures to nip these little gnats."
Hunters can report any dead deer by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 701-328-6351.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or email@example.com.