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Deer dying from disease carried by airborne bugs

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

More than 70 white-tailed deer have been found dead in Washington and Greene counties, victimized by a disease that the Pennsylvania Game Commission believes was carried into the state by tiny bugs riding the winds of tropical storms Isidore and Lili.

Fifty deer were found Oct. 10 and 11 in Gilmore, Franklin and Richhill, Greene County, and more than 20 were found Oct. 19 in West Finley, Washington County.

Jerry Feaser, a Game Commission spokesman, said the suspected cause of the deer deaths is epizootic hemorrhagic disease, also known as blue tongue disease, or EHD. It commonly affects deer in southern states but has never before been confirmed in Pennsylvania.

Feaser said the current outbreak and another suspected outbreak that killed 25 deer in Adams County in 1996 occurred shortly after tropical storms swept up from the south, possibly blowing in biting midges, tiny flies that transmit the disease to deer.

"The current outbreak here falls in line with other outbreaks reported recently in West Virginia, southeastern Ohio, Maryland and Virginia," Feaser said. "It fits those puzzle pieces."

Yesterday, six tissue samples from deer in Washington and Greene counties were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia for testing to confirm the cause of death.

EHD is one of the most common diseases among white-tailed deer in the United States and usually kills the animal within five to 10 days. It is not spread from deer to deer and is not infectious to humans.

Infected deer may appear healthy for a short time after contracting the disease but eventually show symptoms like fever, swelling of the head and neck, lesions inside the mouth, excessive drooling and lethargy.

They often move to areas near water where they usually die within five to 10 days.

Deer displaying severe symptoms of EHD may not be suitable for consumption.

Robert C. Boyd, assistant director of the commission's wildlife management bureau, said that even though some symptoms are similar, there is no connection between EHD and chronic wasting disease -- a much more serious and contagious disease that is killing thousands of deer, elk and moose in Wisconsin Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Canada.

Fear of chronic wasting disease caused the Game Commission in July to ban the importing of live deer and elk in an effort to prevent the state's wild and captive herds from becoming infected.

Boyd said that EHD, unlike chronic wasting disease, is a seasonal disease and the affected local deer herd can rebound quickly. EHD should be curtailed with the first hard frost, which will kill the insects that may be spreading the disease.

"We're confident that this will be limited in its longevity," Feaser said.

Residents in the commission's southwest region are urged to report dead deer or unusual sightings to Matt Hough, the regional law enforcement officer, by calling the region's toll-free number 1-877-877-7137. The Southwest Region serves Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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