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Gun Portion of Deer Season Starts Soon; Summer/Fall Hemorrhagic Disease Outbreak Hurts NC Deer Population

By Paul T. Choate

Nov. 1, 2012. The gun portion of deer season is getting ready to begin in Watauga County and Avery counties. Due to a devastating hemorrhagic disease that hit the deer population in North Carolina, some questions and concerns linger.

In Watauga County, archery season runs through tomorrow and on Saturday, Nov. 3, muzzleloaders will be allowed for deer hunting until Nov. 16. Gun season begins on Nov. 17 and runs until the first of the year.

As for Avery County north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has a more conservative either-sex harvest season, the second of two archery seasons is currently in effect until Nov. 17. Muzzleloader season for deer hunting took place between Oct. 1-13. The gun season will kick off on Nov. 19 and run through Dec. 8. South of the parkway in Avery, either-sex harvest is permitted on Dec. 8.

With the gun portion of deer season soon to be underway, there are some lingering concerns following the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s (NCWRC) observation of an outbreak of hemorrhagic disease in white-tailed deer in Western North Carolina.

Two closely related viruses — the epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) virus and what is known as bluetongue virus — cause hemorrhagic disease. Biting flies, called Culicoides, spread both diseases.

“It’s by far the biggest impact we’ve ever seen in the state here,” said Chris Kreh, District 7 wildlife biologist with NCWRC. He added that in around 30 of the western N.C. counties there have been over 1,500 confirmed reports of the disease since the outbreak began.

“And that’s just the ones we know about,” he said. “That’s a small percentage, I’m sure, of the actual mortality. Normally if we had 200 reports we would call that a bad year.”

There is some good news though, according to Kreh. The outbreak, which began in late June, was slowing down towards the end of September. He added that in October when the weather got cool the outbreak virtually ended. He said he had only heard about a handful of reports recently. However, with so many deer being killed, what does that mean for hunting season?

By looking at the District 7 (Alleghany, Alexander, Ashe, Davie, Iredell, Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Yadkin, Wilkes and Watauga counties) hunter harvest counts during the first week of archery season, Kreh discovered that only 375 deer were harvested. Compared to the District 7 three-year average that worked out to 22 percent less than normal.

Courtesy of NCWRC. Click to enlarge

By far, the hardest hit counties were Caldwell (448 reported cases as of Sept. 27), Wilkes (177 reported cases) and Surry (139 reported cases).

“I think in those hardest hit areas they’ve seen enough mortality from the disease this summer that, absolutely without a doubt, the available deer to show up in hunter harvests is going to be much less,” Kreh said.

Watauga and Avery counties – Watauga in particular – were in a lot better shape as of the Sept. 27 report on the outbreak. In Avery, 13 deer with hemorrhagic disease had been reported. In Watauga, there were only three known cases. However, some reports have come since the Sept. 27 compilation of reported cases.

“We’ve had a fair number of reports from those two counties [Watauga and Avery] but I don’t think it’s of the magnitude we’ve had in the foothills,” Kreh said. “I don’t expect the impact of that to be all that dramatic or all that noticeable in most of those two counties.”

Kreh said in some instances, things like rural areas, where deer are less likely to be seen and therefore less likely to be reported to NCWRC, skew numbers of reported cases. With large swaths of both Watauga and Avery counties being rural, secluded areas, many deer that contracted hemorrhagic disease could have gone unnoticed.

One of the most frequent questions Kreh has been hearing, he said, was whether or not deer are going to be safe to eat this season. His answer, “Yes.”

According to an NCWRC news release, “Because the disease cannot spread to humans, hunters should not worry about dressing deer or eating venison.”

Additionally, deer that manage to recover from the disease develop immunity to it. Kreh said this, in addition to the particular strain of the virus and the abundance of Culicodes, were major contributing factors in why some areas were hit harder than other.

Though at this point in the year it is unlikely to see a symptomatic deer, given the outbreak has for the most part ended, NCWRC has provided the following information:

Symptoms of hemorrhagic disease in deer vary widely. Some diseased animals exhibit no symptoms. Some may appear bloated, very thin and weak. Others suffering from the disease for longer duration may lose weight drastically.

They also may have foot, mouth and internal lesions. High fever associated with the disease can make deer thirsty, so dead and dying deer are often found near water. Hunters may observe cracked or sloughing hooves on harvested deer, which is another classic symptom of the disease.

To report sightings of symptomatic deer, or dead and dying deer, contact the Division of Wildlife Management at 919-707-0050 or wrccomments@ncwildlife.org.

For additional details about the disease, view Kreh’s informational video at youtube.com/watch?v=GjYcP7bGMN8.

For more information about deer hunting season, click here