Usually abundant and at times what some would decry as a nuisance, the regional white-tailed deer population has seen a dramatic decrease in the past year, in large part due to an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in both 2020 and 2021.
EHD is a viral disease in white-tailed deer that is transmitted by biting midges (Culicoides), otherwise known as “punkies” or “no-see-ums.” The disease is not spread from deer to deer, nor can humans be infected by it; but they certainly can smell the rotting carcass of deer, which often are found near streams, as the virus causes severe dehydration before death.
While the recent outbreaks took place in the late summer and early fall of 2020 and 2021, when midges were abundant, the impacts on the population are still not quite known. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) big game biologist Jeremy Hurst said that the agency had “more than 350 dead deer reported from western Dutchess County, and nearly 550 dead deer were reported from Ulster County.” Hurst also noted that the “outbreak in 2021 was more intense in these areas than in 2020, and has very likely reduced the deer population in the areas most heavily impacted.”
What the hunters are saying
Hunters back up this claim, many of them saying that this was the leanest hunting season they’ve ever experienced. “I’ve been hunting since I was a kid, and in 25 years, I’ve never had a problem shooting a mature buck,” said Richie Felter, an avid hunter from Tillson who works at Smitty’s Body Shop in New Paltz. “This year, I had a problem finding one. I sat out there on opening day for seven hours and didn’t see a deer.” Felter said that he hunts on a private tract of land that’s owned by a friend of his in Ulster County, where “There are always plenty of deer. Not this year.”
Felter said that he doesn’t shoot the young ones or the does. An avid outdoorsman, hunting and fishing are the way he has always stocked the freezer. “This is the first time in I don’t know how long that I don’t have any venison. I think that disease [EHD] is really impacting the mature deer.” Felter first noticed the difference in the population toward the end of June. “In the spring I would see eight or nine bucks near where I live, but as it got warmer, they really started to become scarce. I usually drive to work before the sun comes up, and I’m careful because there are deer everywhere, but I haven’t seen any along the roads this fall.”
Frank Kouhout, another lifelong hunter, concurred with Felter’s experience. “I basically hunted at Mohonk this season. I think the entire season I saw seven deer, and they were young. The ranger station tallies how many deer are taken off the mountain, and this year there were less than 30, when usually it’s way more than that,” he said.
The Mohonk Preserve concurred with Kouhout on this observation. According to research ecologist Megan Napoli, the Preserve’s Deer Management Program experienced a “record low harvest season in 2021, with only 27 deer harvests reported – well below the average harvest of 60 deer per season.” Noting that harvest numbers fluctuate from season to season, Napoli added that this year there were “some extenuating circumstances” that may have contributed to the record low harvest total, including climate change with “above-average air temperatures and precipitation, and an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.”
Both Felter and Kouhout believe that the numbers reported by the DEC do not reflect the true number of how many deer have died from the disease. “That’s just what has been reported to them,” said Felter. “I have friends that just quit hunting. It was that bad. Jay Coddington, who owns Black Creek Taxidermy, couldn’t get a decent buck either, and he just stopped hunting.”
Not only does EHD mean a painful death for the deer, but the smell of decay was also widely reported, particularly near streams. “That smell was everywhere,” said Kouhout. “I’d be biking down the [Wallkill Valley] Rail Trail, and there’d be that pungent smell. And the carcasses just lay there, because even the coyotes won’t eat them. They steer clear of them like they know there’s something wrong with the meat.”
Kouhout is hopeful that the whitetailed deer are “building some immunity to the disease,” noting that he and other hunting friends have noticed that “the deer hooves are peeling, which is a good sign, from the information I’ve gathered.”
Increase in hunting licenses
Like all outdoor-related activities, since the COVID-19 pandemic, hunting licenses saw an increase in New York. According to the DEC, “From 2019 to 2020, license sales increased by approximately 10 percent. From 2020 to 2021, license sales decreased by approximately four percent, but are still approximately five percent higher than they were in 2019.”
According to Hurts of the DEC, the agency “will evaluate the impact of EHD on the 2021 deer harvest and adjust DMP [Deer Management Permit] issuance for 2022 as appropriate. The population management objective for Wildlife Management Units in southeastern New York, including those in western Dutchess and eastern Ulster Counties, has been for population reduction. DEC will take that into consideration while reviewing the status of the deer population in the area.”
The DEC encourages people to report any dead deer that they see, so that they can collect samples and send them to their lab to determine if EHD was the culprit. This helps them determine their deer management program. To learn more about the disease, visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/123773.html. To submit pictures and/or a report on a dead or sick deer believed to have EHD, go to https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/6c0603ce13444102be6858bc7d-d577e9.