Last updated: February 17. 2013 2:42AM - 29 Views

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For years hunters have expressed concern that the Pennsylvania Game Commission's deer management program has reduced numbers to dangerously low levels in some areas of the state.

While I agree this has happened in some instances, I can't help but wonder if there is a greater threat on the horizon for Pennsylvania's deer herd.

This threat isn't the result of longer hunting seasons, higher antlerless license allocations or even an increased annual harvest.

It's a threat that we are powerless to control.

Earlier this month the Game Commission investigated the deaths of nearly two-dozen deer at the Pymatuning Wildlife Management Area in Crawford County. Agency officials say epizootic hemorrhagic disease – a virus that kills infected deer by causing extensive hemorrhaging of internal organs, is suspected for the deaths of the deer in Crawford County, along with incidents in Alleghany and Cambria counties this year.

The disease was first confirmed in the state in 2002 and outbreaks have turned up in 2007, 2011 and this year. Most of them have occurred in the southwest, although a captive deer in Northampton County died after contracting EHD last year.

Signs of an EHD-infected deer include emaciation, no fear of humans and abnormal behavior such as holding the head down, droopy ears and drooling.

Basically, any of the signs that a sick deer displays.

In the northeast region, the PGC receives about a dozen calls each year to report sick deer.

Biologist Kevin Wenner said such deer are tested for a variety of diseases, such as rabies, chronic wasting disease (CWD) and EHD.

Most of the time, however, the cause of death turns out to be pneumonia – which is brought on by parasites weakening the immune system, or a brain abscess resulting from trauma such as fighting.

So far, so good, when it comes to EHD occurring in the northeast.

Wenner said now is the time to be on the lookout for EHD, which occurs seasonally.

It is transmitted by biting midges which ingest the blood of an infected animal and transmit it to others – much like West Nile Virus. Unlike that virus, EHD isn't infectious to humans.

"Because it's related to biting midges, late summer and early fall are when we've seen it occur in areas," Wenner said.

And while there is no treatment for the disease, the EHD season ends when the first hard frost hits, killing the midges.

Because the EHD outbreaks that have occurred in the state have been localized, Wenner said it's not an endemic that can hurt the deer population down the road.

Still, combined with the threat of CWD, there is reason to be concerned.

EHD and CWD are just two of the 48 diseases that can affect Pennsylvania wildlife (to view the complete list, visit www.pgc.state.pa.us, scroll over "wildlife," then "wildlife diseases" and click on "Wildlife disease reference library").

EHD cases have turned up in eight other states this year, and the disease is the most common virus to infect whitetails.

In Michigan this year, there have been more than 2,700 confirmed EHD deer mortalities since Aug. 7. The state's Deaprtment of Natural Resources reports that die-offs of up to 100 animals in an area have been reported.

Sure, that number may still be a drop in the bucket compared to the statewide population. But in those areas where deer numbers are already down, a swift EHD outbreak may not leave much left behind.

Tom Venesky covers the outdoors for The Times Leader. Reach him at tvenesky@timesleader.com

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