Bluetongue and Wyoming White-tailed Deer

Our annual Wyoming Antelope and Deer Safari went well, thank you.  This year, Homeys Ken Matney, Joanie Taylor, Steve and Bonnie Kiesel and I assembled in Sheridan about the time son-in-law Chris Kolakowski arrived from Denver to join us in making meat for winter.

Given the unsettled weather, with flooding and rain and wind and fog, we weren’t sure what to expect.  Each year is different, of course.  One year the antelope and deer are exactly where we think they will be and another they are nowhere to be found.  Still, over the seventeen years I’ve made the pilgrimage, various combinations of us have developed relationships with enough landowners that we know we will find them somewhere on ground we have permission to hunt.

The center of activity was our KOA Kabin.  In a pleasant surprise, Homey Paul Rux and various family (gathered from Minnesota and points around the Northwest) were in the next cabin down the line.  They were also making meat.

None of us had much trouble finding the game animals we sought.  We did notice that there seemed to be more gnats than normal—particularly along some of the riparian areas along the streams we wander in our hunting.

The country we hunt has a limited number of antelope possibilities, but the white-tailed deer are everywhere, in large and growing numbers.  This is why Wyoming Game and Fish offers an unlimited number of doe whitetail deer licenses for anyone who wants to come hunt them.  Over the last few years, our conversations with landowners and among ourselves have increasingly turned to “When will the deep population grow too big, and crash?”  We figured it was just a matter of time, so this year’s conversations were not a big surprise.

The first evening we talked, Paul and his group mentioned ranchers who figured they had lost more than 80 percent of their deer to an outbreak of bluetongue.  All of our landowners had stories to tell of deer dying, but only small numbers, so far.  A common refrain, of course, is the damage so many deer can do to forage and habitat.  As I mentioned, we found plenty of healthy deer, but the bluetongue conversation loomed over each of our speculations on the abundance of deer next year and in the years following.  What would this bluetongue outbreak mean in the long run?

As it turns out, bluetongue is an expected problem every few years in much of the West.  In the past decade or so, it has turned up in Washington and Idaho, but not as virile and widespread as in Montana and Wyoming.  While it can have local devastating effects on domestic sheep, along with deer and pronghorn antelope, it generally has minimal effect on populations across states.

Bluetongue is a hemorrhagic disease, caused by infection with either epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV) or bluetongue virus (BTV).  Affected animals look emaciated and often have bluish mouths and tongues.  Hemorrhagic disease caused by EHDV/BTV in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain west is seasonal, occurring in late summer to early fall (corresponding with the presence of arthropod vectors—those gnats, commonly called “no-see-ums”).  Outbreaks tend to occur at elevations below 7,000 feet and at fairly predictable four to seven year cycles.

In our wanderings, we observed no deer obviously infected and ill.  I did come across Bob Krumm’s September 5th article from the Billings Gazette, and thought I might share with you his personal observations and writing about deer dropping from bluetongue.

“The white-tailed deer stood in the Bighorn River drinking the cool water. Had the deer been doing this at dusk, I wouldn’t have given the situation another thought. But the time of day was close to 11 a.m…  The doe drank for about five minutes and then took a couple of unsteady steps and drank for a minute or so more.  She appeared to be humped up as though she had been gut shot.  As she slowly waded to shore, she wobbled just a bit. It was evident that she was pretty ill.

“In the past two weeks I have seen five dead white-tailed deer in the Bighorn River and smelled a couple more. There have been news releases regarding deer dying in the area…  There had been reports of white-tailed deer dying in the eastern portions of the Bighorn Basin since mid-July. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks personnel have posted notices of white-tailed deer dying…

“Wyoming and Montana agencies speculate that the deer deaths are probably because of epizootic hemorrhagic disease or bluetongue…[which] cause infected deer to go to water. The vector for the disease is a biting gnat—Culcoides variipennis.  Other biting gnats and mosquitoes may also transmit EHD.  Typically, outbreaks occur in the late summer to early fall and end when the first frost kills the gnats.  …By the way, all the information about EHD and bluetongue affirms that humans cannot contract the disease.”

Time will tell.  We won’t know until next year whether this cycle of bluetongue will significantly affect deer populations in the country around Sheridan.

In 2014 we will again make our pilgrimage to Wyoming.  Whatever happens with the deer or antelope, the friendships and connections forged with ranchers and town folk over nearly two decades will be celebrated.

It is now time to savor the rich pleasures of hunting in Paradise.  Happy fall…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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