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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Disease outbreak affecting deer harvest

The hunting grapevine began humming in late summer with anecdotal reports of fewer deer being seen in many counties near Fredericksburg.

Oak trees rained acorns in early autumn. Absent detailed evidence, it was easy to assume deer were simply staying in the woods, close to acorns, water and bedding areas.

That assumption now appears partially correct. Many deer were in the woods and close to water. Only they weren’t eating acorns; they were dead, likely victims of what could be a significant, localized outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, said to be the most significant viral disease affecting whitetails.

Some hunt clubs and early-season archers began finding dead deer as they prepped stands for the upcoming season. Many dead deer were found near water. Seeking respite from raging fever is a telltale clue for HD.

Through early muzzleloader season and into the first three weeks of general firearms season, it became apparent something wasn’t right in many areas of Stafford, King George, Essex and Caroline counties.

WAVE OF BAD REPORTS

I began receiving phone calls early last week from local landowners and hunt club leaders. One call is an anecdote. Two calls are mounting evidence and three constitute a trend. Deer were few and far between.

One landowner with more than 1,000 acres said he was stopping doe harvest for the rest of the year. A hunt club manager with a variety of mixed habitat across several hundred acres said deer were almost nonexistent on the property.

Last weekend, the Virginia Deer Hunters Association staged its annual disabled-veterans hunt at Caledon State Park in King George. Thirty-three hunters were supported by 40 experienced hunters who served as drivers trying to flush deer from thickets and swamps. Last year, the group took 22 deer; this year, they killed two.

Only 15 live deer were seen. Another 12 were found dead. More dead deer were located during Caledon’s early muzzleloader season. The park has, reportedly, discontinued hunting for the remainder of the season, including a youth hunt planned later this month.

Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, confirmed that several nearby counties likely will see the deer kill down significantly this year. He said DGIF surmises most of this decline is due to hemorrhagic disease.

“The interesting thing is that we did not get a lot of HD reports from this area of the state back in the fall,” Knox said.

King George County is down by 26 percent compared to this time last year, while Stafford is down 24 percent, Caroline 14 percent, Knox reported.

But, overall impacts on the local deer herd based just on these numbers could be misleading, since this year all three of those counties have continuous open season on deer of either sex. This makes it possible, if not probable, that more does have been taken early. Final deer kill numbers could show an even more dramatic decline since there will be considerably fewer deer to hunt during the last weeks

of the season.

Statewide, the reported deer kill is close to last year’s number. The disease, apparently, only had localized impacts.

MILITARY REPORTS

I checked with military installations that offer major public hunting opportunities. Fort Pickett in Nottoway County is slightly ahead of last year at this time in terms of the deer harvest.

But in our region, hunters at Marine Corps Base Quantico have taken about 50 fewer deer than last year at the same time. Deer arriving at the check station show more HD evidence than last year.

At Fort A.P. Hill, wildlife biologist Ben Fulton said that, while large numbers of dead deer haven’t been found, “it is obvious that we have lost a noticeable percentage of the deer herd to hemorrhagic disease in late summer or early fall.”

Thirty-six percent of the deer checked in during the general firearms season have had “sloughing hooves,” a symptom indicating the deer survived the virus.

“While our deer harvest so far this season is not down drastically [about 60 deer], it is down, and given that we anticipated an increase in harvest of 20 percent this season, it does indicate a change in herd numbers most likely due to hemorrhagic disease,” Fulton said.

Unlike many Virginia counties, federal installations Quantico and A.P. Hill do not observe either-sex deer hunting all season long. Consequently, herd populations on the installations may emerge better than those in neighboring counties.

THE DISEASE

While devastating to deer, hemorrhagic disease is not harmful to humans and deer that survived the illness can be consumed, according to professional literature on the topic. Survivors will likely have lower body weights.

The disease is also not related to chronic wasting disease, which has not yet been found in this part

of Virginia. Hemorrhagic disease outbreaks are not uncommon throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States, but their severity can vary widely.

The virus is transmitted by the Culicoides biting midge, a type of gnat. A midge bites an infected deer and then becomes a carrier, transmitting it to other deer. The virus is closely related to the Bluetongue virus.

Deer that get an extreme case of the virus often die within a few days of the onset of symptoms. Those that survive go through a rough couple of months. The outbreak usually ends after the first hard frost.

Around here, a number of dead bucks were found with their antlers still in velvet, reflecting that

they were likely infected in late summer.

The VDGIF website has a good question-and-answer page about HD: dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/hd.asp.

Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or e–mail at outdoors@freelancestar.com.

For more on outdoors things to do around Fredericksburg and the region, sign up for The Free Lance-Star’s newest

e–newsletter, Mighty Outdoors, at http://fredericksburg.com/topics/mightyoutdoors/about.html

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