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We Definitely Have a Deer Problem
By Bill Hoagland
Illinois has a lot of deer. In fact, we have too many deer. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is aware that we have a deer problem. That is why they have encouraged people to hunt more deer by extending the seasons and coming up with more ways to harvest those deer. The fact is that when deer become too numerous, Mother Nature takes over and begins culling the herd if we aren’t going to do it ourselves.
I am referring to two fatal diseases affecting deer that now exist here in Illinois: Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), sometimes referred to as Blue Tongue Disease. I don’t have the space in this column to go into a lot of detail, but here are some important things to know about these two diseases, either of which could wipe out an entire herd of deer.
CWD is currently present throughout both northern and southern Missouri, including some counties bordering the Mississippi River. As for Illinois, CWD is definitely in the upper one-third of Illinois, and for reasons apparent in a minute, it could also already be here. Frankly, it may just be a matter of time before infected deer here become symptomatic. CWD is a very contagious disease and can be spread directly from deer to deer if a healthy deer is exposed to the bodily fluids of an infected deer, such as the urine or saliva of that infected deer. This exposure results in the development of “prions”, meaning structurally abnormal proteins, in the brain of the newly infected deer. These prions eventually destroy brain cells—causing the brain to essentially resemble a sponge—and the end result is always fatal. This disease takes sometimes as long as several years to develop in a newly infected deer and because of this, the classic symptoms—often described as “acting like a zombie”—do not become evident until late in the progress of the disease. By “zombie deer”, we are referring to behavior that is obviously unnatural, such as losing all fear of humans, repeatedly turning in circles or going into convulsions for no apparent reason.
EHD, sometimes referred to as Blue Tongue, is the other disease that could impact a herd of deer and unlike CWD, has definitely been in our neck of the woods in the past. It has the potential to spread very quickly. EHD is a virus based disease that affects the circulatory system of deer by destroying the lining of blood vessels and thereby causing blood clotting and other circulatory problems. One of the classic symptoms of EHD is, as you might surmise, a bluish and swollen tongue. This disease is not spread directly from deer to deer as is the case with CWD; rather, it is spread by mites that have bitten some other infected animal before biting a healthy deer. This disease moves very quickly from bite to death, perhaps as quickly as two weeks. The mites that transmit this disease are contagious in late summer until they are killed off by frost in late October, so there is a seasonal aspect to this disease. Once the mites are gone, the incidence of this disease will eventually dissipate for the rest of the year.
Some symptoms of these two diseases overlap and that is why there is some confusion over what may be going on in a specific herd. Both diseases can result in an animal looking anemic and unhealthy. Fever is common in both but specifically as to EHD, this is why those infected deer are found in or near water as they attempt to cool off and reduce their fever. If fact, one of the tell-tale signs of EHD is a dead deer lying in the water.
So here are a few things to know: Thus far, according to the CDC and other medical sources, there has been no known cases of either CWD or EHD being diagnosed in humans despite the fact that humans have undoubtedly consumed infected deer for years. But why risk it? If you harvest a deer that looks diseased, don’t eat it (and don’t give it to some food bank either). The other thing to know is that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a form available on-line to report the sighting of any deer that look sick or dead as the result of some non-violent cause. This information is important to the IDNR so that they can properly tract outbreaks of the disease. So we need to do our part.
Deer can be a pain. They run into our cars, eat our crops in the field and chomp on those favorite flowers in the garden, but can you imagine what it would be like if we no longer had any deer at all?
Note: There is a separate viral disease known as “Bluetongue Disease” that primarily involves domestic livestock. EHD is different from “Bluetongue Disease”.
• Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.