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Nearly 400 deer have been reported dead in Caldwell County in recent weeks, and experts believe it is the result of a Hemorrhagic Disease caused by a virus that is spread by gnats.
"It is not uncommon for outbreaks to occur in deer populations," said North Carolina Wildlife Resources Biologist Danny Ray. "North Carolina normally is not hit as hard as other southern states," he said.
In 2011 only 3 cases were reported in Caldwell County but experts say an early spring combined with a wet summer has made the gnat population explode and made the disease easier to spread. Ray said not all the deer infected will even show signs of sickness and most that do will survive and develop immunity to the disease.
The hardest hit areas appear to be along Highway 268 towards Wilkes County and in the Collettesville area along the John's River.
"We sure can smell them at night," said Ira Hedrick, who lives in the area. He thinks it will be tougher for hunters to find prey this year. Hunting season opens in just a few days in the area and many are concerned about whether they should be hunting at all.
All counties in Western North Carolina are reporting cases of deer dying but Caldwell County appears the hardest hit, with Wilkes and Surry Counties not far behind in the numbers.
Experts say it is all right to hunt deer, even in years of hemorrhagic outbreaks. "It is okay to eat the deer," said Ray. What he does warn hunters about is eating deer that exhibited signs of sickness such as walking in a stupor and showing no fear of humans. Those deer may have additional illnesses besides the hemorrhagic disease.
Poet and livestock owners should not worry about the disease either. It can only be passed by the gnats and most livestock and pets are not affected by it. Humans will not contract the disease either.
Ray said the problem will continue as long as the gnats are around. "First frost and they will be gone just like turning a light switch off," he said.