CASTLETON — For the first time, Vermont has confirmed cases of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, an illness that affects deer but isn’t considered dangerous to humans.
The cases were confirmed in the northern part of Castleton and along a road in West Haven, said Deer Project Leader Nick Fortin.
A few weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Department announced that it was on the lookout for the disease, which until now hasn’t been documented in Vermont, but has cropped up in northeastern states in the past.
“There’s no risk to people,” said Fortin, however, the state is suggesting that hunters consider avoiding areas where it’s been found. “From a biological perspective there are still plenty of deer to hunt, there’s no concern about hunting there, but the hunters will notice there being fewer deer, so they might want to think about going elsewhere.”
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease is a virus that causes the affected animal to suffer internal bleeding. It only affects deer. They get infected by small, biting insects called midges or no-see-ums. The disease only can be passed from insect to deer.
“It’s not a big concern for the deer herd, but those local areas, those handful of properties where most of the deer are dying, the people who hunt there are definitely going to notice fewer deer this year and maybe even next year,” said Fortin. “We’re just going to monitor it. If it becomes more widespread and we see a lot more dead deer next year we might think about fewer antlerless permits or change our harvest goals to react to it, but I don’t expect that to be the case, so at this point we’re just keeping track of it.”
He said the disease is more common in the southern United States, but outbreaks further north happen from time to time. He believes the local cases are connected to an outbreak in New York.
“It seems like it’s been creeping north over the past couple decades, so it’s probably climate change related,” he said.
The insects that spread the illness likely will die with the first frost, according to Fortin.
“Right now we’re trying to track dead deer, reports of dead deer, and we test any that we can get that are fresh enough to test, but basically we’re just trying to monitor it and try to get a sense of how many deer have died and what impact that might have on the local deer population.”
The cases reported have been a little more than a dozen. Fortin said these came mainly from hunters scouting ahead of the season. Testing for EHD requires relatively fresh tissue samples from the animal’s lungs or spleen. Vermont sends its samples to Cornell University for testing.
“The challenge with this disease is you have to have a fairly fresh carcass to test and they were all pretty far gone by the time we got to them,” he said.
Once a deer shows symptoms of EHD, they don’t have long to live. Death usually occurs within 48 hours. Symptoms can include bleeding about the mouth, swelling of the head, tongue and lips. Infected deer might look dehydrated and weak. They often die near water, occasionally in groups.
Fortin said that while a human can’t contract EHD from eating an infected deer, it’s never a good idea to eat a diseased animal.
“There’s no concern with eating a deer infected with EHD; that said there’s no guarantee it’s EHD just from looking at it,” said Fortin. “We always recommend that if a deer looks sick or otherwise not right, it’s generally a good idea not to eat it. You can report those to us and usually get your tag back.”
A hunter field dressing an infected deer might notice the deer’s organs look darker than they should, as if they’d been bruised.
The public is asked to report sick deer to the Fish and Wildlife Department by contacting their local game warden. This can be done by visiting the department’s website, or contacting a state police dispatcher.