The bad news is that West Virginia’s deer herds are experiencing another outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.
The good news is that the outbreak, at least thus far, appears to be concentrated in a few specific areas.
Jim Crum, deer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said people who have been getting worked up about it probably shouldn’t.
“So far we have confirmed cases in Harrison, Nicholas and Summers counties, and reports of it in Monroe and Greenbrier counties,” he explained. “Our guys are in the field, taking samples [from deer found dead]. Just as in the past, it’s being found in isolated areas, and some watersheds have higher [mortality] numbers than others.”
Crum said samples sent off to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study center in Athens, Georgia, have come back positive for EHD virus, serotype 2.
The disease, caused by a biting gnat called the Culicoides midge, doesn’t affect humans, but it is often fatal to whitetails. Crum said it is sometimes mistaken for blue tongue virus, a closely related but different disease.
Historically, West Virginia has experienced outbreaks every few years. Crum said the ones in 2007, 2012 and 2017 were particularly widespread, although the 2017 outbreak affected deer in Kentucky and Ohio more severely than whitetails in the Mountain State.
“We’ve had hemorrhagic disease since colonial times,” he said. “What has changed are the serotypes: new strains that cause the same clinical signs. For example, we never had EHD serotype 6 show up in West Virginia until 2016. That was a new one for us.”
Deer infected by EHD lose appetite, lose their fear of people, grow weak, drool excessively and show signs of fever.
The fever often spurs them to lie down in creeks or ponds in an attempt to lower their body temperature. A lack of oxygen often causes the animals’ tongues to turn blue, and that’s why people often confuse EHD with blue tongue virus.
Deer who survive the disease and recover often exhibit cracks or creases in their hooves. Hunters who find hoof lesions on the deer they kill should not be afraid to eat the animal. EHD does not affect humans.
Crum said hunters who live in areas where EHD outbreaks occur should not avoid hunting.
“We’ve found that the deer harvest tends to fall in outbreak areas — not because there are that many fewer deer, but because people don’t hunt because of the disease,” he added. “There’s no reason at all for those hunters to stay at home.”
Once they start, the outbreaks usually keep going until cold weather renders the midges less active.
“A lot of people say the disease disappears after the first hard frost, but I think it slows down a lot well before then,” Crum said. “When it gets down into the 40s at night, the bugs aren’t nearly as effective [at spreading the disease]. They’re weak fliers, and cold weather slows them down a lot.”
The EHD outbreak is not at all related to the chronic wasting disease that has been present since 2005 in several Eastern Panhandle counties. CWD is caused by rogue proteins known as prions, and affects deer differently. Deer that contract EHD sometimes survive; deer that contract CWD do not.