Deer tags returned after EHD outbreak

An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in South Dakota has caused a voluntary return and refund process for deer hunting licenses in areas impacted by the disease.

EHD is a blood-borne disease impacting deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn, according to Andy Lindbloom, senior big game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. It is a viral disease spread by biting gnats, which are also called midges or no-see-ums, in the late summer months. EHD causes fever and internal hemorrhaging, and can lead to illness or death in deer.  

“The number of cases [in an area] varies widely, from very few to thousands, and often is worse in years of drought,” said Kip Adams, the director of education & outreach and certified wildlife biologist at Quality Deer Management Association in Bogart, Georgia.  

Historically, EHD has only been seen in southeastern states, but it has since expanded across much of the white-tailed deer range. In recent years, South Dakota has seen variable numbers of EHD-related deaths. 1,674 deer have been reported dead this year alone.

This has prompted many South Dakota deer hunters to return their purchased licenses and let deer numbers rebound in their hunting areas. 

About 600 firearm, archery, youth deer and muzzleloader licenses for the 2016 season have been returned to date, but officials expect those numbers to rise.

“The refund process has provided a good option for hunters who feel the disease has impacted the area they planned to hunt,” Lindbloom said. “We expect some people to request refunds all the way up to the deadline.”

All East River Firearms units are available for refund, with only units 45A and 45B in Lyman County eligible for the West River season. Archery and youth season hunters were eligible to return tags, as long as the hunter had not hunted this year and returned the license prior to Nov. 1. All muzzleloader licenses are available for refund, but they must be returned before the season begins. 

In addition to the refund process, the SDGFP also removed leftover unsold licenses after the third drawing for the East River Firearm Deer season in the following units: Aurora, Brule, Buffalo, Douglas, Hand, Hughes, Jerauld, Miner, Sandborn, and East and West Sully. In all, 1,251 deer licenses were removed from these units.

EHD has mainly impacted areas of central and southeastern South Dakota. The three counties with the highest number of reported deer deaths this year due to EHD are Brule (204), Beadle (179) and Aurora (157).

Although these counties have been hit hardest by EHD, the disease has affected a wide range across the state.

“Samples have been submitted from several areas of reported deer loss, and the diagnostics laboratory at South Dakota State University has verified the EHD virus in white-tailed deer in 21 counties,” Lindbloom said.

D.J. Loken, senior wildlife and fisheries major, has seen the effects of EHD firsthand. On a bow hunting trip in Sully County last month, he found a nice buck that had fallen victim to EHD only 50 yards from the Missouri River.

He also heard that EHD-related deer deaths were higher in counties south of where he was hunting.

“I know it hit the Chamberlin area pretty hard this year,” Loken said. “I was out there in October, though, so I’m sure I missed a few deer that people had already picked up.”

Although 2016 has seen elevated EHD mortality rates for South Dakota deer, it hasn’t been the worst in recent years. The most substantial losses from EHD were seen in 2012, when 3,714 deer were reported dead.

That year was also high in EHD-related cases on a national scale. In 2012 alone, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study estimated more than 65,000 deer died as a result of EHD.

Detailed records of reported EHD deer mortalities in South Dakota only date back to 2007. Reports have been as low as zero some years, but in the thousands others. An average of 950 deer die from EHD around the state every year.

Allowing hunting licenses to be returned when EHD hits hard is unique to South Dakota. In fact, Adams was very surprised by the decision made by SDGFP.

“This is a great measure by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks,” Adams said. “This is not common in other states.”

More information on the disease, along with a map showing areas around the state impacted by EHD, can be found on the SDGFP webpage under the Deer Hunting section.