Fatal disease found in Southold’s deer population

A disease that is almost always fatal in New York deer has been detected on the North Fork for the first time, Southold Town officials confirmed Wednesday.

The DEC says roughly 87 suspected cases of white-tail deer with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease have been reported in Suffolk County, an illness state officials warned had reached the county last month. Six are confirmed positive.

EHD is a virus that’s typically fatal for deer in New York, transmitted by biting midges known as no-see-ums or “punkies,” according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Town officials emphasized that people are not affected by handling or eating EHD-infected deer meat, or by bites from midges carrying the virus. The virus may affect other ruminants — such as cattle, goats and sheep — but not other animals.

Craig Jobes, an environmental analyst with the Town of Southold and a member of the deer management task force, said EHD has also been confirmed in Riverhead, but he does not know of any cases on Shelter Island. No Shelter Island cases have been reported to the DEC. The town has not yet contacted local cattle farmers about the disease, he said.

“The major thing is that it has no effect on humans,” Mr. Jobes said. “We don’t want people panicking. Humans can’t contract it. It also can’t be passed through the venison or anything.”

Most Southold cases have been identified near fresh water bodies in the Laurel Lake area and Mattituck. The DEC notes approximately 10 deceased deer have been reported in Southold, with one positive case confirmed on Sept. 24. Southold town officials have indicated that number may be higher.

The outbreak is expected to end with the first hard frost, typically in mid-October. Outbreaks are most common in the late summer and early fall, although the DEC reported initial cases this year were detected in late July.

As of Oct. 13, the DEC had received reports of more than 1,700 dead deer across the state, with 61 confirmed cases.

Infected deer typically appear thin, weak and sickly and may not be afraid of humans. They also might exhibit excessive salivation or foam around the mouth or nose, swollen areas around the head and neck, erosions and ulcers on the tongue or around the mouth and detached walls of the hoof.

The DEC noted that deer start showing symptoms between two and 10 days after infection, usually dying within 36 hours after showing signs of infection. Deer infected with EHD often seek out and die near a water source. The virus is endemic in southern states, where some deer have developed immunity. The virus was first confirmed in New York in 2007.

Similar cases have also been reported in Riverhead Town, an official there said. The DEC says 38 deceased deer have been reported in Riverhead, with one positive test so far.

“Riverhead Town sent out an email to all of the hunters letting them know how to report it to the DEC if an animal is infected,” said Rev. Jerry Halpin, a member of Riverhead’s hunting committee.

The email is basically a press release from the DEC confirming the spread of the disease, he said. The town committee has not been asked to keep statistics.

Deer hunting archery season is in effect until the end of the year, and then shotgun season begins. Riverhead has hunting at the Enterprise Park at Calverton and other locations.

“We’ve let the hunters know about it and we’re encouraging them to communicate with the DEC,” he added.

Southold asks hunters and residents to submit reports of EHD-suspected deer to the DEC online.

Tim Gannon contributed reporting to this story.