The first reports filtered in late last month, about the time deer hunters began trimming shooting lanes and servicing tree stands for the upcoming season.

Hunters and farmers in Southern Illinois began finding dead deer on their property. Others observed sickly looking whitetails with bloodshot eyes, drooling excessively and walking around emaciated in a shocklike state.

Tom Micetich knew exactly what the culprit was: Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, an often-fatal disease that hits deer herds hard during excessively dry summers with limited rainfall, like the one the region is just completing.

"As soon as the first call or two came in, I figured it was EHD," said Micetich, deer project manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "The last couple of weeks with the bow-hunters going out and hanging stands for the season, they are tripping over dead deer.

"Folks are starting to fish their ponds more with the weather being cooler and are seeing these sickly animals. We have cases every year, and this year seems to be one of the years where we have a wider area affected."

Earlier this month, the DNR and state Department of Agriculture confirmed EHD as the cause of death in captive herds in Randolph and Franklin counties. One farm in Franklin County lost 16 of its 20 deer.

Micetich said EHD also is the suspected cause of death in wild deer in at least 30 counties throughout central and Southern Illinois, including all the counties in the News-Democrat coverage area.

"Pretty much the whole southern tip of the state has reported cases," Micetich said. "I'd say I-64 south is pretty solid."

A few cases of EHD are reported each year, but the last significant outbreak in Illinois occurred in 2004. Numerous other states also are reporting substantial outbreaks this year, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia.

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Micetich stressed EHD poses no risk to humans, although other wild animals are susceptible and domestic animals such as livestock may become infected but rarely fall seriously ill.

"It's a deer-health issue. It won't effect people at all," Micetich said.

EHD is contracted by biting midges, or gnats. The midges transmit the virus from infected to uninfected animals as they feed and, more commonly, drink water at concentrated sources.

Officials believe the dry summer in central and Southern Illinois produced ideal conditions for an EHD outbreak. Shallow ponds and creek beds dried up quickly, providing more breeding grounds for the midges.

"You get a sick deer coming to water and laying in the water trying to get cool from the high fever it's running while the insects feast on them," Micetich said. "The healthy deer that are coming to that water hole to drink are getting feasted upon by that insect.

"A single sick animal ends up affecting all the healthy animals that come to the same water hole."

Common symptoms of deer infected with EHD include high fever, loss of appetite, excessive salivation, muscle weakness and depression. The disease is commonly called "blue tongue" for the color of the tongue on the dead animal.

Micetich said the symptoms of EHD are similar to that of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), but there's no relationship between the two diseases. He said EHD outbreak will end with the first insect-killing frost.

"With EHD, it's something that pretty much runs its course and is gone when we get a killing frost," Micetich said. "The insect vectors disappear and the deer quit dying within a week after that because there's nobody around to infect them anymore.

"With CWD, there's some concern in that the alleged cause of that disease can bind with the soil particles and stay active and effective for who knows how long and constantly infecting animals. That's a little bit more of a concern."