Stricken whitetails reported in Fayette and across Tenn.

A disease that causes whitetail deer to develop high fever, drink water incessantly and bleed gruesomely has been noted all over Tennessee, leading wildlife officials to fear that one of the state's worst outbreaks is imminent.

Alan Peterson, a wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, has received reports of epizootic hemorrhagic disease from across the state during the past few weeks, including a possible outbreak at Ames Plantation in Grand Junction.

Reports of the disease are coming in earlier this year -- and from a much wider range than usual.

"We hear reports of EHD just about every summer," Peterson said. "But they usually don't start coming in until late August when hunters re-enter the woods for squirrel season. Even then, they're usually confined to one or two areas.

"This certainly seems to be something different."

Peterson said he has had "lots and lots" of EHD cases reported from more than a dozen counties, including Chester, Hardin, Decatur and Benton.

He said the possible outbreak at Ames is the first report he's heard from a county "near the Mississippi River."

When reports first started coming in, TWRA officials gathered tissue samples from deer carcasses and sent them to be analyzed at the University of Georgia's Whitehall Deer Research Facility in Athens, Ga. Biologists there confirmed EHD and said the outbreak is affecting deer all over the Southeastern United States.

"They said it's happening in Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina -- all over the place," Peterson said. "That certainly suggests that weather conditions might be playing a role."

EHD is a blood-borne disease transmitted to deer by a species of biting fly that is common across the Mid-South and Southeastern United States. Because much of the region is mired in a three-year drought, water is scarce and many deer are forced to drink from the same pools.

"That just concentrates the deer population and gives these biting flies an opportunity to infect more animals in one spot," Peterson said.

When deer are infected with EHD, they begin showing symptoms within seven days.

Deer with lesser strains develop a high fever and seek out water immediately.

They often have pronounced swelling of the head, tongue, neck and eyelids and may have trouble breathing.

"For us, it would be like having the flu with no air-conditioning," said Dr. Allan Houston, a wildlife biologist from Ames Plantation.

Deer with highly virulent strains of the disease experience internal hemorrhaging and often bleed from their mouths and anuses.

Death often occurs one to three days after symptoms emerge.

Peterson said the disease has greatly affected single-county deer populations in the past and could certainly have a dire statewide effect this year if the outbreaks are more widespread.

Houston said Ames officials began finding dead deer in July -- and though he cannot confirm the cause of death, he said the outward signs certainly point to EHD.

He is also concerned that widespread EHD outbreaks, combined with harsh environmental conditions could have significant long-term effects on the state deer population.

"We had an unusual freeze in April that killed a large portion of the mast crop," Houston said. "When you consider that, plus a harsh summer, plus an EHD outbreak and a hungry winter, I can't predict where all of this will lead us."

The Tennessee deer hunting season begins in mid-September, but the full effects won't be known until the final harvest numbers are in for each county in January.

On the upside, Peterson said, two-thirds of the deer infected with the disease will survive -- and once they've had the disease, they develop a natural immunity that keeps them from being infected again.

"It's sort of like a child with the chicken pox," he said.

Female deer that have survived the disease can often pass the immunity to their fawns through their milk.

EHD affects only whitetail deer and poses no danger to domestic cattle or humans.

Deer that have survived the disease show obvious scars, but their meat is safe for consumption. Deer should be field-dressed within an hour of death to keep bacteria from building up in the carcass.

"Their hooves can flake away due to the fever, and the animals that recover will have split and layered-looking hooves this fall," Houston said. "A lot of people see that and wonder if the deer are safe to eat -- and they are."

While there is nothing humans can do to ease the outbreak, Peterson said, it would be helpful if people who see dead or dying deer on their property would contact the TWRA.

"Most deer that die of EHD will be found around water," Peterson said. "If you see a deer that's sick or dying around water, we'd like to know about it -- especially if that deer is bleeding from its mouth or anus.

"We'd like to at least chart the counties that are having outbreaks."

To report a dead or dying deer on your property, call (800) 372-3928.