Disease continues to kill Kansas deer

A deadly disease spread by tiny insects is taking a toll on Kansas’ deer population in some areas.

This summer's heat and drought are largely to blame for an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in eastern Kansas deer. The disease is spread by tiny insects. (Fernando Salazar photo)

“We had a guy in yesterday who’d found 13 dead deer in two sections,” said Lloyd Fox, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism big game program coordinator. “We’ve had them found from about all over the eastern one-third of the state.”

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease has been documented as far west as Butler and McPherson counties in recent months.

EHD is most common in years of extended drought when large numbers of deer are forced to drink water from shallow, stagnant pools of water in creeks and ponds. Such waters are perfect breeding grounds for midges, tiny insects that pass infected blood from one deer to another.

“Those sites are almost as good as a high school for spreading a disease or illness,” Fox said.

The disease can not be passed to humans or pets. Cattle can get EHD but it’s very rarely fatal in them. Sheep can be vulnerable to EHD.

Fox said Kansas probably has cases of EHD every summer but some years are far worse than others. The worst year was about 1990 in northcentral Kansas. A few years later the disease is believed to have killed a high percentage of the pronghorn antelope population in the Flint Hills.

Deer of all ages can become victims of EHD. Western Kansas deer generally carry high immunities to the disease. Michael Pearce photo

Years of mild outbreaks can help deer develop immunities to the disease. In western Kansas, where water is often hard to find, deer genetically have developed immunities to the disease.

In past years places in the Dakotas and Wyoming have lost about 50-percent of their deer herd to EHD outbreaks. Fox estimates some localized areas in northern and eastern Kansas may lose 25 to 30-percent of the deer herd this year. Recently the disease has spread to states like New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan where it’s never been found before.

Many places in Kansas are only losing a few animals.

“In some areas (in other states) they find more than 100 deer. Most of our employees haven’t found more than two or three together,” Fox said. One game warden found five dead deer together in Greenwood County.

Deer with EHD often have lesions on their tongue and may stand around with their tongue hanging out. Hooves often fall off the animals and they eventually head to water because of high fever.

Most EHD mortalities are found in or within a few yards of water. Many are found by landowners and early season deer hunters. “That’s one thing about this disease is that you can find the deer. You can usually smell them if it’s hot,”Fox said.

Fox said the best medicine for the on-going outbreak are temperatures cold enough to kill insects. “Knock out the midges the disease stops,” Fox said. “A good rain can slow the disease dramatically because you have water everywhere and deer are spread out.”