Widespread whitetail-deer deaths blamed on midge-borne virus

If you’ve been walking, hiking, maybe even raking in your backyard, chances are that you’ve taken in that fetid dead-animal aroma that appears to be wafting over the Hudson Valley. The cause? Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, better known as EHD, is a viral disease that is killing local white-tailed deer.

The New York State Department of Conservation’s (DEC) wildlife biologists are receiving numerous reports of dead and sick deer this fall, prompting them to collect the carcasses for testing at their wildlife health unit in Delmar in Albany County. Tissue samples have been sent to the diagnostic center at Cornell University to confirm the presence of EHD.

DEC biologists said that the virus cannot be contracted by humans, nor spread from deer to deer. It is passed onto the deer by biting midges: small insects colloquially called “no-see-ums” or “punkies.” According to DEC spokesperson Jeff Wernick, whitetails often get bitten during the late summer and early fall when the midges that carry the disease are abundant and the deer are trying to get water from puddles or dry streambeds. 

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Symptoms include fever, hemorrhage in muscles or organs and swelling of the head, neck, tongue and lips.

“Frequently, infected deer will seek out water sources and may succumb to the disease near a water source,” stated Wernick. He said that infected deer may appear lame or dehydrated. There is no treatment nor means of prevention for EHD. “Once infected with EHD, deer usually die within 36 hours,” he said. “The dead deer do not serve as a source of infection for other animals.”

To date, there have been confirmed cases of dead white-tailed deer due to the EHD virus in Ulster, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties. Well over 1000 known white-tailed deer deaths due to EHD in the Hudson Valley region have been confirmed, including more than 450 in Ulster, Rockland and Orange. Although the current outbreak appears concentrated in the lower Hudson Valley, the DEC said that EHD may have spread elsewhere in New York.

Might the white-tailed deer deaths due to EHD place a check on deer overpopulation in the area? Wernick said, “EHD outbreaks do not have a significant long-term impact on deer populations. EHD is endemic in the Southern states, where there are annual outbreaks, so some Southern deer have developed immunity. Generally, in the Northeast, EHD outbreaks occur sporadically, and deer in New York have no immunity to this virus. Consequently, most EHD-infected deer in New York are expected to die.”
While common in the South, the last time the EHD virus affected New York deer was 2007 in Albany, Rensselaer and Niagara counties, and in Rockland County in 2011.

The DEC will continue to monitor the situation. Sightings of sick or dying deer should be reported to the nearest DEC Regional Office or to an Environmental Conservation Police officer. For reports in DEC Region 3, witnesses can call the general wildlife line at 256-3098 or e-mail wildlife.r3@dec.ny.gov. In addition, the Department of Agriculture and Markets has alerted deer farmers and veterinarians throughout the state to be aware of the disease and to report suspicious deaths.

Archery season for white-tailed deer having begun on October 1, the DEC is asking hunters to report any deer suspected of dying from EHD to the nearest DEC regional wildlife office. “Hunters should not handle or eat any deer that appears sick or acts strangely,” said Wernick. A directory is available on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/about/558.html.

What about the pervasive odor of rotting flesh? Wernick said it was reasonable to attribute the odor to decomposing deer. “They are large and consequently produce more odor than smaller animals, and there are many dead deer on the landscape from this EHD outbreak,” he said. “During the EHD outbreak in Albany in 2007, odor was used to find carcasses.”

In terms of what may have caused the outbreak, Wernick said, “Changing weather patterns, likely as a result of climate change, are thought to transport infected midges from the Southern states into the Northeast.” Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey are also seeing cases of EHD this season. The current outbreak is expected to end shortly after the first hard (killing) frost, which will kill the midge vectors.

For information, go to www.dec.ny.gov/press/121508.html.

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