Nebraska Game and Parks warns drought could fuel deadly big game virus

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – Hunters can add another worry to the drought. This one is for big game populations, like deer and bighorn sheep.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease or EHD.

“It’s a virus that’s carried by midges,” said Luke Meduna, Nebraska Game and Parks’ big game program manager. “So when you have drought conditions you tend to create these mud flood conditions which are good for midges, in turn when you have these drought conditions (EHD) they tend to concentrate on deer around these shallow water sources.”

Meduna said it is midges and gnats biting a host that move the virus from animal to animal. Animals also naturally congregate at the water’s edge during a drought. And since extreme thirst is one of the symptoms of PEM, infected animals will infect otherwise thirsty herds.

The two worst years Meduna can remember are 2006 and 2012. In 2006, a new strain of the virus had a deadly effect on white-tailed deer in the central and eastern United States. In 2012, EHD killed almost a third of the state’s white-tailed deer. herd.

The symptoms are ugly, but not always easy to see from a distance. The NGP reports that the disease causes “high fever, internal bleeding, swelling, lesions, lethargy, rapid heartbeat, dehydration, salivation, incoordination, and loss of fear of humans.”

“Usually you won’t see sick deer, you’ll only find dead deer, usually concentrated around water,” Meduna said. “If it’s going to kill them, it tends to kill them pretty quickly, so if you find one dying sometimes they just stand there not really realizing what’s going on. A lot of times they stand in or around water, that’s the real kind of common denominator.

Symptoms and spread are similar to what is known as bluetongue disease, which appears to spread more easily to livestock, making both diseases of particular concern to farmers, as it is very hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone.

The disease does not directly affect humans, but Meduna said in rare cases domestic dogs have even been infected.

“Other species, cattle, llamas and even horses can be somewhat susceptible, but it’s usually the whitetails that are most affected. [by EHD]“We actually had six bighorn sheep that we picked up that tested positive last fall, and then a handful of pronghorn as well.”

Nebraska and Iowa wildlife officials say if you see unhealthy big game or unexplained deaths, contact any local wildlife office. Tracking the disease and its impact can help avoid a devastating impact on the big game population.

If you shoot a deer during hunting season that appears to have EHD once examined, Meduna said it can still be eaten.

“There’s no risk to humans, it doesn’t impact the meat, when it hits them they tend to die pretty quickly,” he said. “And so even if they’re in the active stages of the disease, it has no impact on humans, so the meat is safe in that regard.”

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