Evin Stanford, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's supervising deer biologist, faced dozens of questions from hunters at the Feb. 26-March 1 Dixie Deer Classic in Raleigh, but at least the questions were all similar: “What happened to the deer in my county last year?” Most felt like an outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease had wiped out their deer herd, and Stanford said they were correct – but only partially.
Stanford said that another factor — a massive acorn crop —combined with EHD to create a perfect storm of fewer whitetails seen and harvested.
"If people hunted field edges and agricultural areas, they may not have seen a lot of deer because deer stayed in the woods to eat acorns,” he said.
Stanford said the EHD outbreak was centered in six counties – Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Vance, Warren and Wake – with fewer infected whitetails being reported from Granville and Person.
EHD is a viral disease caused by biting midges, gnats and mosquitoes. The virus causes high fever in whitetails and loss of appetite. Infected deer also show little fear of humans, salivate excessively, have rapid pulse and respiration rates, and their hooves often swell and hooves swell or slough off, causing difficulty in walking and running. Deer that have died because of EHD often are found near ponds, lakes, rivers and streams, where they’ve gone to drink or cool down because of fever.
“The total statewide deer harvest is going to be down because of EHD,” Stanford said. “Right now, I can only go by electronic deer harvests reported on-line or telephone call-ins. We haven't collected all the paper reports, but it looks like the deer harvest will be from 15 to 18 percent less statewide over 2013.”
Stanford, who said some of the hardest-hit EHD areas may have lost as much as 30 percent of their deer, said last fall’s mast crop was North Carolina’s second-largest since 1983.
“I’m talking about all kinds of mast, from acorns to soft mast such as grapes and other natural foods,” he said. “From the coast to the mountains, we heard that hunters saw no deer. But if you hunted over bait and acorns were plentiful, you probably didn’t see many deer.”
Even if hunters abandoned bait piles and fields to hunt around patches of oaks, that wasn’t a guaranteed strategy, Stanford said.
“If you’ve got a big crop of acorns, and you’re sitting in an oak tree, you’re competing with a lot of other trees dropping acorns,” he said. “Deer usually get up and wander maybe 2 miles in a day. But if acorns are plentiful, a deer might get up and only walk a few hundred yards before he fills his belly and lies down.”
Stanford said no one knows why EHD appears in certain areas, but he isn’t alarmed past deer herds hit by the illness have recovered quickly in past years.
“In 2012, we had a big outbreak in Wilkes, northern Caldwell and southwest Surry counties,” he said, “but now, the harvest is back up. People think some deer are immune (after being infected but surviving).”
Stanford pointed out that hunters killing record numbers of whitetails the past five seasons contributed to angst when the deer kill dropped last fall.
“Some hunters and clubs like to manage deer by killing lots of does,” he said. “That also could have meant less deer last year in a few places.”