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Date: 10-18-2017

The biologist overseeing the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s deer and elk program said the Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, outbreak could possibly result in more hunting restrictions next year in Floyd County.

Fish and Wildlife Biologist Gabe Jenkins said the outbreak has slowed down recently and he expects it to end soon, but officials won’t know exactly how it has impacted the county’s deer population until later this winter.

“The end is in sight,” he said. “We were getting reports of 700 to 800 a week. But for the past couple of weeks, it slowed down to half of that statewide.” 

Floyd County has been at the top of the list of counties statewide in the number of deer that have been reported to have EHD. When the outbreak started in July, officials described several Floyd County
communities as the “epicenter” of the outbreak. The number of cases in Floyd Country doubled and tripled almost weekly since the department started issuing reports, but the number has increased only by four since Oct. 3. 

As of Oct. 10, there were 429 reports of the disease in Floyd County, and the county had the second highest number of cases reported, with Pike County having 563. 

Jenkins said Fish and Wildlife officials take these EHD reports with a “grain of salt” because they do not have the staff to “ground truth” them, and it’s likely some deer with EHD have been reported more than once while others have not been reported at all. Because of that, he said the number of EHD cases are likely higher than reported. 

As of Oct. 10, there have been 4,288 EHD reports statewide — around the same number of cases reported during the state’s last significant EHD outbreak in 2007. Jenkins said there were only 12 reports of EHD in Floyd County that year, which is why the outbreak is so devastating to the county’s deer herd this year. 

Deer can survive EHD, and when they do, they can pass that genetic resistance to their offspring. Jenkins said since Floyd County did not have a large number of EHD cases previously, the county’s deer herd is more susceptible to contracting it now. 

The EHD outbreak has spawned several conspiracy theories from residents and hunters, including allegations about the outbreak being purposely caused to reduce the number of vehicle crashes caused by deer or to make more room for elk to roam in Eastern Kentucky.

“I read it all over the Internet. It cracks me up, but there are conspiracy theories,” Jenkins said. “I guess the odd thing for folks there who are in the know of EHD is that we really weren’t in drought conditions this year in the eastern part of the state, and that’s usually how EHD gets started.”

The midge, or gnat, that transports EHD lives near shallow water, and drought conditions that leave muddy areas around water holes create a good breeding ground for the insects. Jenkins compared EHD to the flu virus, explaining that people can take a flu shot for one strain of the flu, but still get another type of flu that season, at the same time that they are resistant to the strain in flu shot they received. 

He then talked about EHD in Harlan County, which, on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, only had nine reported EHD cases and is the only Eastern Kentucky county with fewer than 10 EHD cases. 

“For the longest time we had no reports in Harlan County,” he said. “So I looked into it. I wanted to know why Harlan County was its own island down there. I called the staff there and nobody had reports. Then I went back through our data and I saw that Harlan County had an outbreak in 2015 as well. So, some of the deer there died in 2015 with EHD, but a lot of them were exposed and survived. So, that group of deer in Harlan County is less susceptible to EHD than those in Floyd County.” 

He doesn’t yet know how the EHD outbreak has impacted the overall number of deer in Floyd County. He said the number of deer harvests reported during archery season, which is already underway, are usually lower than gun harvest reports, so the archery harvest data is not a good indicator of how many deer have been killed. Fish & Wildlife will compile data from the gun season harvest, as well as data from the EHD reports if changes need to be made to Floyd County’s hunting season next year.

“It is possible,” he said, when asked if EHD will cause more hunting restrictions for Floyd County next year. “We’re not going to change anything that is in place for this season ... We’ll let the outbreak run its course and, if we need to make restrictions or reduce the hunting season, then we’ll make that decision.” 

He said he will analyze the number of deer harvested and the deer deaths related to EHD while also comparing the number of does and bucks impacted. He’s most concerned about the number of does that have died because “they drive the population.” He said the decision about next year’s hunting season won’t come until later this winter after gun season is over. 

He said outbreak is heartbreaking, particular because state officials were considering increasing the deer hunting opportunities in Floyd County.

“That area has been growing significantly in deer population,” he said. “We were hoping to increase hunter opportunities by moving the hunt up, but now, we don’t know if that is possible ... You went from, 20 years ago, harvesting a couple of hundred deer to harvesting almost 1,000, so the herd has grown significantly.” 

Floyd County’s herd is estimated at 9,000 deer. 

Jenkins also confirmed reports that scavengers like coyotes won’t eat deer that have died of EHD. 

“It’s something that’s ingrained in nature,” he said. “They know that this thing died from a sickness, so it’s something they will not eat, so the deer just lie there and rot.”

He reiterated comments the department previously made about deer that have survived EHD being safe to eat, talking about a deer that survived EHD in 2015 that he harvested the following year. 

“In 2015, I had a deer that definitely had EHD, but he survived. He had it pretty rough, but he survived,” he said. “I harvested that deer in 2016 and I never thought twice about feeding it to my family.” 

He encourages hunters not to harvest deer that appear to be sick and asked them to be mindful of the EHD outbreak if they chose to hunt this year, particularly in areas like Floyd County that have had large numbers of EHD cases.

He said, “The biggest thing I’m trying to tell, especially to our hunters, if you’re in area that has a bad EHD outbreak, I would say if you’re feeding your family with venison, then by all means, take a deer, but if you’re shooting deer for antlers or a trophy and don’t need it, then practice little self-restraint and hold back, especially on those does. The bucks will be okay, but the does, they’re the ones that drive the population.” 

Local residents are encourage to report suspected EHD cases by visiting the department’s website, fw.ky.gov.


By Mary Meadows
Floyd County Chronicle

 

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