From the staff at Jefferson Memorial Forest
Late winter and early spring is the time when some of the more persistent natural features of the forest become more visible. Ice-covered rock faces shine through the empty woods as they reflect the afternoon sun. Autumn’s blaze has long since dissipated and left bare the grey limbs and trunks of the trees that created it. Gnarled roots and deeply furrowed bark seem to testify to the struggle for survival that allowed a small acorn to become a huge tree.
This time of year also shows us how some other forest creatures have fared. Snow shows the tracks and diggings of animals that are currently staying busy in the survival business. It is interesting to study these signs and re-create what must have been taking place when they were left. The remains of animals that have not survived also stand out more than in other seasons.
It may be the fur of a rabbit that an owl ate last night or the skeletal remnants of an animal that died months before. This winter, there may be a few more deer skeletons than in most years.
Many people throughout Kentucky reported seeing deer that had died of disease in the fall of 2007. Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) was the cause in many of these cases. EHD is the most significant deer disease in the U.S.
It affects deer in many states every year, especially in the southeastern states, but it is more severe in years with little rain and warm fall weather. The reason is the disease’s vector, or pathway of travel. EHD is spread by tiny biting midges that feed on the deer. These midges will usually be found living around pools of water in the late summer and early fall. During dry years, deer will stay closer to these remaining water sources and therefore are more available to be bitten by the midges. In this way the virus is more easily spread. The first hard freeze of fall kills the midges and ends the spread of the disease.
The effects of the disease can vary in severity. In the southern states, many deer in the population are infected with the virus, but have a higher immunity to the disease and therefore show less acute symptoms and a lower mortality rate. In more northern states, the disease strikes less often, but because of this, the deer population has developed less immunity and the effect of the disease is more severe when it occurs. Disease symptoms include fever, swollen head, neck, tongue, and eyelids, troubled breathing, internal bleeding, and lameness. Deer with no immunity may die in as little as three days. The virus cannot spread to humans through the deer, the midges, or by eating infected deer. However, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources does not recommend eating any obviously sick deer, because other, more dangerous infections may be present due to the deer’s depleted immune response.
This disease is nothing new. The virus was isolated in the 1950s, and journals from the 1880s describe deer epidemics likely caused by this disease. The EHD outbreak should not have any significant effect on Kentucky’s deer population. There is little evidence to support that population density causes an increase of the disease.
Some interesting facts about white-tailed deer:
- They have been known to live up to 15 years in the wild.
- They have pedal glands on their feet that give their hoof steps a smell that is unique to each deer, so deer can recognize each other’s trails.
- Deer live in home ranges of about ½ to 1 ½ square miles.
- Deer can run at up to 35 mph and, if necessary, jump fences as high as 8 feet.
- Does usually give birth to two fawns in areas with good resources.
- Humans are deer’s main predators; coyotes and bobcats may kill a few, but less than cars or dogs.
- Deer prefer habitats near forest margins, especially near agricultural areas.
- In 1908, there were only about 500,000 deer in the United States. Today there are over 900,000 in Kentucky alone.