Concern about white-tailed deer populations plummeting from an ongoing disease in north central Montana is colliding with the state’s general deer season that starts Oct. 26.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, EHD, is currently widespread in Montana, including Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4.
For hunters the concern has been, will there be any whitetails left. The answer is, yes there will be deer left. That’s partly because Region 4 has been at high, if not record, whitetail deer densities. However, there will be fewer whitetails in areas with EHD and that may affect where a person hunts.
EHD is the most important viral disease of white-tailed deer in the United States and occurs over a large part of the country, though the frequency and severity of outbreaks vary regionally.
The virus is spread by tiny biting midges and occurs seasonally in late summer and fall. The first killing frost of the fall stops the disease, killing the midges, though not midge larvae that overwinter by burrowing into the ground.
In the southeastern states, the disease is much more common and typically fewer whitetails die from it. Deer herds probably face annual virus activity, which results in herd immunity and protection from the disease.
In Montana, EHD doesn’t appear as often but the mortality (death rates) can be higher.
Based on University of Georgia research, whitetail death losses usually are well below 25 percent of the population, but can occasionally reach 50 percent. So far EHD outbreaks have not represented a limiting factor to deer population growth.
Mule deer and pronghorn antelope can also develop fatal infections though not on the level with whitetails.
The disease is characterized by extensive hemorrhaging, fever and a resultant urge to be near or even immersed in temperature-controlling fresh water. That explains dead whitetails found in or near ponds or even floating in rivers.
Animals with the disease may exhibit symptoms such as fever, hemorrhaging of oral and nasal tissues, excessive salivation, nasal discharge, respiratory difficulties, tender hooves, and an arched back.
Human Health Implications
The virus does not affect humans, and humans are not at risk by handling infected deer, eating venison from infected deer or being bitten by midges carrying the disease. Nevertheless, it’s probably best to pass up taking a whitetail that is in the final throws of EHD.
What’s a Hunter to Do?
While white-tailed deer will not disappear from Region 4, there will be fewer animals on the landscape. If hunters have secured a place to hunt in north central Montana they shouldn’t be scared away.
Whitetail hunters, however, may want to consider focusing their efforts elsewhere, like the eastern portion of Region 4 near Lewistown, or in Meagher County.
There is also good white-tailed deer hunting to be had in eastern Montana. If sticking to the central part of the state, a hunter might consider higher mountain valleys.
As with all hunting, Montana law requires permission on private land. Even if private land is not posted, hunters must have permission before hunting on private property. Access to public lands through private land requires permission of the landowner.
That means preparation now can relieve last minute scrambling and panic later.