Drought and disease take a toll on Missouri's deer population

Sep 20, 2012

It’s been a while since Jeff Lampe turned on his windshield wipers. But even on a rainy day like this it’s easy to see the toll the drought has taken on his land.

"You see on the right here, all of those brown stalks over there? Those are all blackberries, and normally we harvest anywhere from 25 to 30 gallons of blackberries out here,” said Lampe.

This year, Lampe only got eight gallons. But harvesting blackberries isn’t his biggest worry. Lampe is worried that this year’s drought will also affect what he grows those blackberries for: hunting deer.

Lampe is a recreational hunter, and maintains nearly 600 acres of land in Rocheport, Missouri. It's there that he grows foods like berries and alfalfa to attract and feed deer. And with hunting season fast approaching, there’s not much for the deer to feed on. A plot of clover Lampe planted earlier this year looked promising, until the drought struck.

“It was probably eight to ten inches tall and it stopped raining and now it’s just a brown mat,” Lampe said.

Emily Flinn is a deer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. She says many of these hunting food plots are struggling.

“The thing about food plots is that they’re a great supplemental nutritional resource for deer, but in years like this when deer really need them, they often fail,” said Flinn.

With no food, Lampe says he’s using trail cameras beyond his food plots to track deer movement patterns. But for Lampe, tracking their movements is also rooted in yet another threat brought by the drought: Epizootic Hemoraggic Disease, or EHD.

“We found all three of these deer near a small pond, all near the same pond," said Lampe. "And one of them was a very nice mature buck, another was a young buck and another doe.”

All three were infected with EHD.

Conservation officer Sean Ernst received Lampe’s call about the deer. Ernst says he’s gotten about a dozen calls like Lampe’s, reporting deer carcasses found near bodies of water.

“Generally, in these years where ponds are low, and bodies of water that typically have water don’t have water, wildlife are gathering around the same little watering holes,” said Ernst.

Ernst says when more deer gather around the same bodies of water, the danger of transmitting EHD increases.

According to Emily Flinn, constantly drinking water is one symptom of the disease. This happens when deer get a fever after contracting EHD from a midge, or fly. She says there have been at least 15 cases in Boone County, but other counties in Missouri are seeing a lot more. Osage County, for example, has at least 124 reported cases of EHD.

Flinn says deer are a huge resource for Missouri, bringing in over $1 billion a year and providing about 12,000 jobs.

“They’re a huge economic resource as well as recreational resource for Missourians, and we just want to do our best to protect the resource.”

To protect the deer on his land, Lampe is relying on the alfalfa growing outside his house. It’s the only food that’s grown well despite the drought.

The Missouri Department of Conservation and Lampe are hoping for an early frost, which would kill the midge that carries the disease and stop it from spreading.