BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota officials announced Tuesday they are suspending the sale of some remaining deer hunting licenses and offered refunds to the holders of 13,000 licenses that already have been sold after detecting a disease that kills white-tailed deer in much of the western portion of the state.
The state Game and Fish Department began receiving isolated reports in August of deer deaths from epizootic hemorrhagic disease, better known as EHD, Wildlife Chief Randy Kreil said. With pheasant hunting season under way, reports have intensified to a "steady stream," he said.
"We've had about 120 reports, totaling about 300 dead deer," he said. "The first week of pheasant season is the real telltale sign of the intensity and extent of the outbreak. It's not a scientific survey by any means, but at the same time it's pretty clear and convincing evidence."
Kreil said it is difficult to estimate how many deer might have died but the outbreak appears to be the biggest since 2000. Environmental conditions were similar that year, with warm and wet conditions in late summer and early fall that are conducive to the development of the insects that transmit the disease, he said.
The disease is almost always fatal to white-tailed deer though not to mule deer, which have a different immune system. It is not known to affect people.
There also have been reports of EHD this year in other states, from Kansas to Montana.
"I think it's just one of those years," said Steve Griffin, a wildlife biologist in Rapid City with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.
The outbreak has been severe in pockets of central and eastern Montana, said Ron Selden, a spokesman in Glasgow for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While the disease is not rare, it's usually not so widespread, he said.
Selden said Montana's white-tailed deer population suffered a "triple hit" this year — record cold and snow last winter, spring and summer flooding, and now EHD. It could take two years for the population to rebound even if this winter is good, he said.
In North Dakota, the EHD outbreak could significantly reduce the number of hunting licenses available next year, Kreil said. About 110,000 licenses were made available this year — the fewest in 10 years — following three successive harsh winters. That number will drop even more when the department suspends the sale of the remaining licenses in three southwestern hunting units Friday. About 1,500 deer licenses remained Tuesday.
License sales were not suspended immediately because some people might still want to hunt in those areas, Kreil said.
"There are areas that have been affected and areas that have not been affected," he said. "We want to leave it up to the people."
Kreil did not expect many license holders to ask for refunds. When a similar offer was made to the holders of 3,000 licenses in 2000, less than 100 were returned, he said.
"People like to go deer hunting. They like to be out with their friends," he said. "They'll take their chances."
The 2011 deer gun season opens at noon Nov. 4 and runs through Nov. 20.