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Art Lander’s Outdoors: EHD outbreak update shows reports of dead, dying deer now in 72 counties

In the past month the number of reports of dead and/or dying deer received by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has ballooned to 2,967.

The tissue and blood samples taken from fresh specimens in the field confirmed that the cause was Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), specifically the EHD-2 strain, according to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Georgia.

As of Sept. 12, reports have come in from 72 Kentucky counties. By comparison, a month ago reports were received from just 21 counties.

“We now have confirmed test results in 12 eastern Kentucky counties,” said KDFWR veterinarian Iga Stasiak. “The outbreak is localized in eastern Kentucky, with sporadic reports from counties in the central and western parts of the state. “

The only confirmed cases of EHD in western Kentucky are in Ohio and Hopkins counties.

Vector/ How Disease Affects Deer

The infectious viral disease, that kills white-tailed deer and other wild ruminants periodically throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, is spread by several species of flying insects in the genus Culicoides.

A 1/10-inch midge, Culicoides sonorensis, is the only known vector in Kentucky.

The disease was first described in Michigan in 1955.

“EHD has no known affect on elk,” said Stasiak. “They appear to be resistant to the disease.”

Deer usually die in eight to 36 hours following the onset of observable signs, which include labored breathing, excessive salivation, no fear of humans, lameness, swelling of the head, neck or eyelids, or blue tissue coloration around their mouth and nose. Infected deer that survive for a longer period of time experience lameness, loss of appetite and greatly reduced activity.

High fever causes deer to seek out water. That’s why carcasses are usually found in or near ponds or streams.

The infectious viral disease, that kills white-tailed deer and other wild ruminants periodically throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, is spread by a 1/10-inch midge, Culicoides sonorensis, the only known vector in Kentucky. The disease was first described in Michigan in 1955. (Photo by Quality Deer Management Association)

The virus can’t be spread by deer to deer contact, or from a deer carcass. The EHD virus can’t live in a deer’s body for more than 24 hours after the deer has died, so that’s why finding fresh specimens to sample is so critical to confirming the severity of outbreaks.

The midge life cycle puts the tiny insects in close proximity to deer during dry conditions in late summer and early fall.

“Drought is commonly associated the EHD, but it’s just one of many drivers that cause outbreaks,” said Jenkins.

Heavy localized rains can expose mud banks along ponds and creeks, and create mudflats of silt and standing water from runoff.

Females midges lay their eggs in the soil at the edge of shallow waters along creeks, small ponds, natural wetlands and low spots in fields.

Very specific environmental conditions encourage midge production. The ideal water is warm, sunlit, high in organic matter.

Because larvae live in the sediments at the water’s edge, and are not open-water swimmers like mosquito larvae, they have few aquatic predators.

Once midge larvae mature, they leave the water and morph into winged adults. Only the females feed on blood. The females are crepuscular – most active at dawn and dusk – just like deer.

Midges are not very strong fliers, so calm, humid nights are ideal for feeding.

Females use the protein in their blood meals for egg production. When they feed on deer, the viruses they are carrying can be transmitted to deer, or from the deer to the midge.

Outbreak Not as Severe as 2007

KDFWR deer program coordinator Gabe Jenkins characterized this year’s outbreak as large scale, but not as bad as the 2007 outbreak, which is considered the worst since Kentucky re-established deer herds in all 120 counties. By late September of that year 2,262 deer were suspected of dying from EHD, with reports from 96 counties.

Deer die from EHD every year in many Kentucky counties, but large scale die-offs occur about every five to seven years.

“In the counties west of Interstate-75 we have received reports of three deer or less, which is considered normal,” said Jenkins.

Fifth Outbreak in Past Decade

This year’s outbreak is the fifth in the past 10 years in Kentucky, including outbreaks in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015. Stasiak said the outbreak is not just in Kentucky, but region wide, affecting four of the seven states adjoining Kentucky. She said confirmed cases of EHD have been found in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio.

“We can’t predict when outbreaks are going to occur,” said Stasiak.

KDFWR began receiving reports of dead and/or dying deer earlier than normal, in late July. By August, it was determined that the epicenter of Kentucky’s outbreak was in Magoffin, Floyd and Pike counties.

A report status map posted on the KDFWR website shows 458 reports of dead and/or dying deer in Pike County, 339 in Floyd County, 130 in Magoffin County, with 228 reports from neighboring Morgan County.

From the epicenter reports spread north and westward, and the outbreak now affects counties throughout Eastern Kentucky, South Central Kentucky, the Outer Bluegrass Region (Hills of the Bluegrass), and Green River basin in West Central Kentucky.

Additional reports could come in until a hard freeze, which kills off the midges, eliminating new cases of EHD.

“We do expect the number of reports to decline with cooler weather and reduced midge activity,” said Stasiak.

Deer death rates from EHD are typically well below 25 percent, and even severe outbreaks have never killed off a deer herd.

To report dead or sick deer, click on this link.

No Risk To Humans

EHD poses no threat to humans, but Stasiak said hunters should avoid taking deer that are visibly sick — appear emaciated or listless.

Eating venison from a deer that appears to be healthy, but has EHD, is not a health risk.

Archery Deer Season Opens with Record Harvest

The EHD outbreak seems to have had no affect on the number of deer taken by bow hunters. Kentucky’s 136-day archery season for deer opened with a record harvest of 2,026 deer over the Labor Day weekend — Sept. 2-4.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

Cool weather had deer on the move and created ideal hunting conditions. A check of social media sites found that in recent weeks Kentucky bow hunters have arrowed quite a few big, antlered bucks, many still in velvet.

As of Sept. 17, bow hunters had checked in 4,188 deer, with 53.2 percent being female.

Biologists to Study Level of Immunity in Deer Herds

With so many EHD outbreaks in Kentucky in recent years, some deer may develop antibodies that give them immunity from future outbreaks.

Stasiak said in November and December KDFWR biologists will be taking blood samples from deer taken during quota hunts on selected state wildlife management areas in hopes of learning more about exposure and susceptibility to EHD, and the level of immunity in herds.

Jenkins said the EHD outbreak will impact the deer populations in several eastern Kentucky counties, many of which are already low density herds.

“We’ll evaluate the outbreak and its impact on herds at the end of the year and make recommendations for next season,” said Jenkins. “In counties with verified EHD cases, I encourage hunters to practice restraint in harvesting deer.”


Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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One Comment

  1. Dennis says:

    Hi Art!
    Great article as usual. With all the mounting corpses alone the roadside and streams should we let them lie or should we burn, bury or “carrion” as usual? Love your articles, keep up the informative work! Dennis

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