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Experts confirm deadly virus spread by biting gnats killed hundreds of deer

Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Kolbe drags a deer carcass from a backwater of the Clark Fork River
Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Kolbe drags a deer carcass from a backwater of the Clark Fork River
Kurt Wilson/Missoulian

Dozens of dead whitetail deer began being discovered in mid September, mainly around areas on the Clark Fork River outside of Missoula, MT. Wildlife biologists found this very disturbing, of course, and immediately sent samples to be tested for cause of death.

Those results were returned this week to confirm that a deadly virus called epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, transmitted by tiny gnats was responsible for the deaths of nearly 400 hundred deer in the area. When the gnats bite, the deer begin to hemorrhage and after the 6 day incubation period, the animal will typically die within a day or two, often near a water source.

Although experts say that this type of outbreak is not out of the ordinary in other areas, it is very unusual for the Missoula area. In fact it is the first documented case of epizootic hemorrhage disease west of the Continental Divide in Montana.

The breeding grounds for these gnats are in moist dirt and muddy areas. Some concerned community members think that this unusual occurrence for the Missoula area may be due to the closure of a local business that maintained holding ponds in the general vicinity of where many of the deer were found dead. They say with much of the ponds drying out, it left a large area of moist dirt and muddy areas. Perhaps leaving a perfect environment for these gnats to breed in.

Montana, Fish and Wildlife experts say that even though the death toll numbers are shocking to the general public, the environmental impact should not be affected too dramatically.

Hunters and hunting guides I have spoken to tell a different story however. They say that finding out that nearly 400 deer have suddenly lost their life to EHD this fall, will not fair well for this years bow and riffle season. Hunting is not just a sport in this neck of the woods. Many families depend on the meat to feed their families for the year. Obviously the impact of the EHD breakout has yet to be determined for these folks.

Nonetheless, as sad as it is for the deer and perhaps the hunters, Wildlife Veterinarian, Jennifer Ramsey does assure all those concerned that this virus is not transmissible to other animals, and more importantly to humans.