“It’s a viral disease transmitted through a midge, a small biting fly,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist and pathologist Tom Cooley said. “It’s about the third of the size of a black fly.”
Cooley said deer are infected from the bite of a virus-carrying midge. He said it's not known to be transmitted any other way.
According to Cooley, the disease appears from August through October, and ceases abruptly with the onset of frost.
“This is the earliest that we’ve had it,” Cooley said. “The hot, dry summer probably contributed to it.”
While the disease is typically found in isolated areas, officials said it is more widespread this year. More than 22 Michigan counties have reported having it, including 10 confirmed cases in Ottawa County.
“About 2,785 is what we had reported a week ago, so we’re well over 3,000 at this point,” Cooley said of the number of confirmed cases statewide.
Cooley said the vascular disease is neither age nor sex specific. He noted that white-tailed deer develop signs of illness about seven days after exposure. Symptoms include loss of appetite and fear of man, weakness, excessive salivation, rapid pulse and respiration rates, fever, and unconsciousness.
Dead deer are usually found near water as they use streams, rivers and lakes as places to cool themselves down from the fever. Eight to 36 hours after the onset of observable signs, deer pass into a shock-like state, lie down and die.
Cooley said humans aren’t able to contract the disease, and hunters wouldn’t be harmed if they were to harvest infected deer.
The disease outbreak has drawn mixed reaction from hunters in the community.
Harv Vandeweg of Robinson Township said he recently saw a dead deer near the boat launch at 144th Avenue, with no visible signs of trauma. He said he saw the same animal standing confused near the water the day before.
“It is a real problem,” Vandeweg said. “I am 73 years old, and I’ve hunted here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Outdoorsman Mike Hewitt, owner of Renegade River in Spring Lake, said he isn’t too concerned about the recent rash of epizootic hemorrhagic disease cases.
“It’s not going to affect hunting in West Michigan or Ottawa County,” he said. “This calendar year has brought 10 cases, and there are thousands of deer in Ottawa County.”
Hewitt also noted that this year’s statewide herd is large — an estimated 1.6 million — and several thousand deer infected by the disease is a drop in the bucket.
“I don’t know that it’s a problem at all in West Michigan,” he said. “In Ionia County, they’ve had the lion’s share of the cases.”
Hewitt said if one comes across a dead deer that they suspect has died from the disease, they should contact the DNR at 269-244-5928 and report it. The state agency is collecting data where outbreaks have occurred and to the extent of the die-offs.
The DNR says property owners who find dead deer on their property can either let nature take its course and allow the carcass to decompose naturally or dispose of the carcass by burying it at a sufficient depth.