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

The symptoms and spread are similar to what’s known as bluetongue disease.
With leaves changing colors, many folks are checking the seasons for hunting.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 10:58 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 4, 2022 at 11:02 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Hunters can chalk up another worry to drought. This one is for big game populations, like deer and bighorn.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease or EHD.

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

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

The two worst years Meduna can recall are 2006 and 2012. In 2006, a new strain of the virus had a deadly result on white-tailed deer in the central and eastern U.S. In 2012, EHD killed nearly 1/3 of the state’s whitetail deer herd.

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

“Usually you won’t see sick deer, you’ll just find dead deer, usually concentrated around water,” Meduna said. “If it’s going to kill them it tends to kill them fairly fast, so if you do find one in the process of dying, at times they’re just standing there not really aware of what’s going on. A lot of times they’ll be standing in or around water, that’s the real kind of common denominator.”

The symptoms and spread are similar to what’s known as bluetongue disease, which appears to spread more readily to cattle, making the two diseases of particular concern to farmers, in that it is very difficult 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, livestock, llamas, and even horses can be somewhat susceptible but it is typically white tails that are the ones that are impacted the most [by EHD],” Meduna said. “We actually had six bighorns that we picked up that tested positive for it last fall and then a handful of pronghorn as well.”

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

If you do take down a deer during hunting season that appears to have EHD once it’s examined, Meduna said it’s still OK to eat.

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