Hunting across the Southern United States and the Midwest is a vital part of a state’s economic boom during the fall as well as a way to control the overpopulation of creatures which are often targeted for food.
In Tennessee; Venison that's acquired from hunting deer is not only a traditional delicacy but spurns an entire industry of wildlife and outdoor accessories every year as hunting season approaches, as well as benefits the wildlife control from the deer which are overpopulating communities and neighborhoods alike.
Such is the cycle of life, as dedicated hunters from across the region trek into the great outdoors in order to stock up on quality meats as well as assist in the control of the deer population through the sport of hunting.
This year however an ultra-rare disease is spreading amongst the deer that begins during a transmission from flies.
The outbreak known as “Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease” has already killed hundreds of deer across East Tennessee which have been confirmed, and it's believed those numbers could be in the the thousands.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is a hemorrhagic disease of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) caused by an infection of a virus from the genus Orbivirus.
It is an infectious, and sometimes fatal, virus that is characterized by extensive hemorrhages, and is found throughout the United States.
It is important for deer hunters, farmers, farm property owners, and livestock owners to have knowledge about EHD because of the seriousness of this disease, its ability to cause large scale outbreaks in wild ruminants, and its ability to affect livestock and the production industry.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease has been found in some domestic ruminants and many species of deer including white-tailed deer, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope.
Seropositive black-tailed deer, fallow deer, red deer, wapiti, and roe deer have also been found, which essentially means that they were exposed to the disease at some time in the past, but may not be involved in transmission.
Cattle farmers also have to be weary as it can affect their livestock as well, and those purchasing beef should undoubtedly be concerned in a similar fashion.
Humans are not at risk by touching infected deer, eating meat from an infected deer, or being bitten by infected .
Deer that develop bacterial infections or abscesses secondary to hemorrhagic disease may not be suitable for consumption, a concern that all hunters should pay attention to since it's unlikely they'll be cutting into the skulls or heads of the deer when collecting meat.
Abscesses sometimes will go unnoticed on the bodies but could exist deep with the brain or fatty tissues of the deer which means they could have been producing the infection and it spreading into the meat of the body even if there are no visible signs within the tenderloins or hind quarters that hunters are typically focused upon.
State wildlife leaders are saying the outbreak is the worst they've seen in over a decade.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency information and education officer Mime Barnes says the disease is common, but the number of deer the virus has killed this year is the greatest since 2007.
"The disease has always been around and it kind up pops up here and there and there's no predictor of when it's going to be an outbreak or how big the outbreak will be," Barnes said.
Barnes says that at the beginning of October, TWRA had received at least 32 calls with 158 deer reported dead in Morgan County alone.
Ben Gamble is a sportsman and farmer who first noticed the disease's toll on deer on his Morgan County farm in September.
"Usually we mow a lot of crops down there at night so the deer come out into the fields when they get used to the tractor. There weren't any deer, so I just made the dreaded walk one day and just found them dead everywhere," Gamble said. "I walked the creek one day and found about a dozen in a 300 yard walk, and that answered all my questions. That was all I needed to see."
Since buying the property as a beef cattle farm 20 years ago, Gamble has continually managed the property to improve it as deer habitat.
Gamble and a group of more than 20 other hunters also lease land in Morgan County for hunting purposes.
"We get on our side-by-sides and take a ride across the farms we own and lease and sometimes we'd count 100 deer. This time this year we'd be lucky if we saw one deer," Gamble said.
Fortunately however Wildlife officials believe that the transmission of the disease will end once the first frost of the season occurs that could slow the fly larvae from spreading the disease from one deer to the next although it remains unseen just how many overall deer are currently infected.
What's most certain is that those hunting need to pay close attention to the gums and skulls of the creatures in order to recognize any potential abscesses that could potentially have contaminated the meat of the animal.
There's debate amongst wildlife officials who clearly have an industry to protect and scientific fact that suggests the meat shouldn't be eaten at all.
It ultimately would be up to the hunter and as delicious as Venison truly is it would be wise to inform yourself from sources outside the industry or at minimal learn what signs to recognize in those deer that could be infected and make an informed decision.
"The midge that carries disease, in its larval form, is in waters and the midge actually will die with the onset of cold weather," Barnes said. "We do tend to see it in the late summer and early fall and as soon as cold weather hits, it literally will drop off the landscape again."
Barnes says the disease is cyclical and outbreaks should not be cause for alarm.
"It is something we are still taking reports on, and of course that will be taken into consideration for future harvest setting seasons, but because animals carry diseases and illnesses - every population of animal does - it's not something we have to be overwhelmingly concerned about, huge negative impacts on deer herds."
However, Gamble says what he's seen on his property has already led him to change how he will hunt this season. He says he will likely only hunt his Morgan County farm if targeting a particular mature buck he first sees on a trail camera.
"It's just heartbreaking to see everything that you saw coming to life in the spring, within a two month period - died," Gamble said. "Everything you worked for for 20 years. In two months, died."
Remain vigilant Tennessee hunters, and pay attention to warning signs when harvesting that delicious meat.
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