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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tests show virus is cause of die-off of deer around Kamiah

In this April 23, 2013 photo, Whitetail deer browse on tree buds in the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, Minn.  (David Joles)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

Idaho Fish and Game officials said Wednesday that a deer die-off centered around Kamiah is caused by a variant of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, and they believe deer dying in other areas of the Clearwater Region may be caused by a different strain of the viral illness.

Test results from a lab in Georgia confirmed EHD 2 is responsible for the deaths of several hundred deer in and around Kamiah. The variant of the disease that is spread by biting gnats appears to be particularly virulent.

“It happened very quickly and it was quite a severe response to the virus,” said Nicole Walrath, veterinarian for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Caldwell. “That is why they were dying so quickly and that is not always a terrible thing. Viruses don’t replicate well if they kill the host too quickly. So it didn’t spread very quickly even though it was very virulent.”

Clay Hickey, regional wildlife manager for Fish and Game at Lewiston, said the illness didn’t spiral quickly beyond the greater Kamiah area and instead sort of parked there.

“Those deer were dying very fast and generally before they were spreading the virus,” he said.

Initial test results from spleen samples taken from dead deer in other places like Potlatch indicated the animals died EHD, likely from a strain known as EHD 1. A deer die-off in Colfax has been positively linked to EHD and reports of dead deer have come from places like Grangeville, Harpster and Lenore.

Walrath said the clinical symptoms presented by the dying deer in other parts of the Clearwater Region more closely match previous EHD outbreaks in the state.

“It is progressing in a more classic fashion,” she said. “It is spreading more.”

Hickey estimated as many as 500 deer within a few miles of Kamiah have died from the disease. Combined with mounting deaths in other areas, the total could be as many as 1,000.

“I don’t think we are into the multi-thousands yet,” he said.

But Hickey said the die-offs are likely to continue and the number of dead deer will increase.

“The important thing here is we are losing lots of deer and it’s not going to get better in the short run,” he said. “That is always a sad day for somebody who loves whitetail.”

Outbreaks usually set in during the hot, late summer period of drought years when deer concentrate around shrinking water sources like small ponds. They end when a hard freeze kills the gnats.

Hickey noted there have already been freezing temperatures recorded in some higher elevation area such as Weippe and at Moose Creek Reservoir near Bovill.

“I’m hoping it’s an early frost,” he said.

Outbreaks of EHD are common and generally tend to be localized. However, in 2003 the illness became widespread around the Clearwater Region and killed between 5,000 and 10,000 whitetail deer.

Hickey said mule deer can get the disease but they tend to have much higher survival rates. The department has received a few reports of dead elk but have not been able to confirm them.

“EHD doesn’t typically kill elk and, in our past events, we have not lost elk,” Hickey said.

People should not salvage the meat from deer that die from the illness and hunters should always avoid taking animals that are obviously sick. Although EHD can’t be passed to humans, Hickey said the symptoms of the disease can foul the meat.

“Typically when something has an infection and a high fever, we are worried about other infections and other issues,” he said.

Animals that survive the disease can be consumed.