BILLINGS, Mont. - White-tailed deer populations in parts of eastern Montana and elsewhere in the Northern Plains could take years to recover from a devastating disease that killed thousands of the animals in recent months, wildlife officials and hunting outfitters said.
In northeast Montana, officials said 90 percent or more of whitetail have been killed along a 100-mile stretch of the Milk River from Malta to east of Glasgow.
Whitetail deaths also have been reported along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and scattered sites in Wyoming, South Dakota, and eastern Kansas.
The deaths are being attributed to an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Transmitted by biting midges, the disease causes internal bleeding that can kill infected animals within just a few days.
“I’ve been here 21 years and it was worse than any of us here have seen,’’ said Pat Gunderson, the Glasgow-based regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “Right now it’s going to take a few years to get things back to even a moderate population.’’
In North Dakota, state wildlife chief Randy Kreil described the outbreak as the most extensive and deadly in two decades.
Mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorn also are susceptible to the disease, but it is particularly damaging to whitetail herds, animal health experts said.
Researchers say the virus that causes the disease does not infect people and there is no risk of eating or handling infected deer.
More precise estimates of the number of whitetail killed are expected after agencies conduct winter population counts and survey fall hunter success.
Periodic outbreaks of the disease occur in whitetail herds across the country. Wildlife officials say the Northern Plains outbreak stands out for the high number of deaths and wide area affected.
Animal health experts suspect it was triggered by an exceptionally wet spring that led to more of the biting midges that carry the disease. A warm fall meant the midges lingered and continued transmitting the disease to the deer.