Roughly 400 white-tailed deer dropped dead in the greater Missoula area this fall, most in or around water. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks promptly sent samples in for testing, but the state was candid about its suspicion: epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Lab tests confirmed the theory. The outbreak became the first-ever appearance of EHD in Missoula County.
According to Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, the prevalence of EHD could be on the rise. During a Nov. 22 press conference, Inkley explained that the viruscarried by biting midges commonly known as "no-see-ums"is directly linked to drought conditions that are becoming more frequent across the United States. Longer, hotter summers prompt big game populations to spend more time near the very water sources where midges thrive. Afflicted animals will seek out water to relieve symptoms like fever and dehydration, and since the insects tend to stick around until the first frost, late winters significantly lengthen the amount of time deer are exposed.
"With climate change, there are going to be surprises," Inkley said.
The sudden rash of white-tailed deer carcasses near the Clark Fork even stunned state biologists, who are trying to piece together why EHD has shown up in Missoula now. However, the agency has voiced skepticism about whether the recent outbreak indicates a growing trend in western Montana.
While reports of disease similar to EHD date back to the late 1800s, the first confirmed cases occurred in eastern states back in 1955. Since then, EHD has popped up in 30 states from Florida to Washington. Last year, nearly 15,000 white-tailed deer died from the virus in Michigan, and the extent of an outbreak in South Dakota prompted state officials to halt the sale of deer tags in six counties.
FWP was quick to note this fall that EHD poses no threat to humans. But the list of susceptible species includes mule deer, pronghorn antelope and livestock, making the frequency of future drought conditions and subsequent outbreaks a growing concern for hunters and ranchers alike. Several cases of EHD were reported among cattle in North Dakota just this fall. FWP responded to outbreaks elsewhere in Montana by halting the sale of antlerless white-tailed hunting permits in certain districts at the end of October.
Todd Tanner, a Flathead hunter and board president of the nonprofit Conservation Hawks, added during last month's discussion that there are no "winners and losers" among big game populations when it comes to climate change. Disease is just one indication that, eventually, all populations will be "slammed."
"I hate to be blunt," Tanner said. "For hunters, it's going to suck."