Digital Exclusive: Tri states’ big game at risk of deadly virus, wildlife officials say

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU)– Wildlife officials say big game is at risk this year of a deadly viral disease, and they’re already seeing cases. 

Hunting is a popular activity in the Midwest, though Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) could dramatically affect deer populations. Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa have begun seeing cases of deer contracting EHD, and the toll could be among the highest in the last several years.  

Big Game Disease and Research Biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Todd Nordeen, said EHD is related to ‘blue tongue’ disease and is transmitted through midges or gnats.  

Once the virus is contracted and the deer become sick, the deer begin to hemorrhage or the virus will target the lining of their blood vessels and often die within 72 hours (about 3 days), but it is not transmissible to humans. 

Rachel Ruden, the state wildlife veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the deer begin to have clinical symptoms including general malaise or discomfort, fever, and disorientation 7 to 10 days after the midge transmits the virus. 

“This will persist until you have hard freeze which then kills that biting midge or gnat,” Nordeen said, “So, it’s probably going to be around for a couple of months yet, and then after that, we’ll see more totals [of EHD fatalities].” 

Nordeen said the Nebraska offices are getting calls nearly every day with reports of dead or sick deer, and drought conditions make the toll much higher. In 2012, the combination of drought conditions and widespread of EHD caused the loss of 50% of the Whitetail Deer population in the state.

“Years, like we’re seeing now, it can be more severe because deer get concentrated near water and then these biting midges and gnats can then attack more deer at those locations,” Nordeen said, “In wetter years it’s more widespread and we don’t see it as often because there’s so much more water that the deer can get water in different places, but drought conditions can definitely impact the magnitude of the disease that we see.”  

Wildlife Administrator for South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, Chad Switzer, said muddy areas or bodies of water with mud flaps are the perfect breeding ground for midges.  

Switzer said they’ve confirmed EHD in 4 counties, most of which were in the northwest to eastern parts of the state, and they are asking hunters and landowners to report any dead deer they find out on the landscape. 

When a deer is reported officials decide if the testing is necessary, and will send a sample to the diagnostic laboratory to determine results.  

“We like to try to confirm that as much as possible,” Switzer said, “We want to get reports of those dead deer so we can be proactive in the future with our season setting. Structure with our commission of future deer hunting season is where we may have to make adjustments to the number of antlerless hunting licenses in particular.  

Some deer can survive EHD, according to Ruden. Deer in southern areas have an immunity to the disease because they don’t have a time when the midges are extinguished by the cold. Deer in the Midwest are highly susceptible to the disease, and very few are able to survive.  

Ruden said the number of cases in 2019 was much higher than what Iowa has seen this year, but it is still early in the season, and reports are continuously monitored. EHD that has been reported in Iowa has been in the south and eastern parts of Iowa.  

To report a deer that may have the virus currently or may have died from EHD in South Dakota or Nebraska, contact your local game, fish, and park commission.  

To find contact information for South Dakota, visit the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks website.  

To find contact information for Nebraska, visit the Nebraska Game and Parks website.  

To find contact information for Iowa by county, click here.  

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