Isaac heightens deer disease

Advocate staff photos by JOE MACALUSOThis skeleton of a deer was found on a the edge of grassy field, high ground in the McElroy Swamp south of Sorrento. State biologists documented reports of dead and dying deer in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, and the biologists traced the problem to outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease of blue-tongue virus, either of which can be fatal to whitetails. One of the symptoms of HD and blue tongue is sloughing of the hoofs, which is evident in the close-up of this deer's left front hoof.
Advocate staff photos by JOE MACALUSOThis skeleton of a deer was found on a the edge of grassy field, high ground in the McElroy Swamp south of Sorrento. State biologists documented reports of dead and dying deer in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, and the biologists traced the problem to outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease of blue-tongue virus, either of which can be fatal to whitetails. One of the symptoms of HD and blue tongue is sloughing of the hoofs, which is evident in the close-up of this deer's left front hoof.

Friday night was supposed to be a joyous celebration of friends at the Panama Hunting Club. Ditto for the Timberton and McElroy clubs.

And Saturday morning, Troy Schexnayder was supposed to be in a treestand. Ditto for his fellow Panama hunting buddies and his deer-hunting friends at Timberton and McElroy.

Not this year, not after Hurricane Isaac and especially not following the after-effects of what was considered to be a not-so-dangerous Category 1 storm had on the swamps between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

If was predictable that Isaac would shove water into the swamps and marshes of the seven parishes surrounding Lake Maurepas and the northern end of Lake Pontchartrain.

Water levels never seen in his lifetime concerned Schexnayder and Jim Boyce over at Timberton, and Barney Callahan at McElroy.

Problem was that water didn’t drain: It lingered for weeks and sent state wildlife biologists into the lower reaches of Ascension Parish, where Panama, Timberton and McElroy members hunt, and to low-lying areas of Livingston, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James, Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes.

First-hand observations led to a report presented to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission in early October. The report outlined some 391,000 acres affected by Isaac’s 5-to-6-foot above-normal surge and estimated that as much as 90 percent of the fawns born in late summer were killed by this flood and that there was “moderate mortality” among adult deer.

The commission acted to reduce the deer season in this Lake Maurepas area by more than 40 days, took away last week’s primitive firearms season, reduced the area’s still-hunt only season to 10 days (took away Saturday’s opener and shoved it to the Friday after Thanksgiving) and removed the either-sex hunting option to make all season days bucks-only hunts.

That was just the start. Worse yet was the storm’s aftermath: Adult deer were pushed to, and congregated on, high ground, a situation that precipitated an outbreak of hemorrhagic and blue-tongue disease, both of which most times are fatal to even the healthiest deer. Gnats spread these diseases and confining deer to small areas usually triggers an outbreak.

“We’re just not seeing deer,” Schexnayder said after spending most early Novmber days combing Panama lands that lay south of La. 70 and west of U.S. 61 south of Sorrento.

“I do a lot of riding every year and looking at the deer situation. In the past, I’ve been able to go out and been successful in seeing 15-20 deer in a couple of hours in the afternoon. This year there’s a noticeable difference. Some days I see two or three (deer), but sometimes I’m not seeing any. Even on (trail) cameras, we’re just not seeing them.

“What I don’t know is if the deer moved or if we, in fact, lost that many deer,” Schexnayder said. “We did find a few deer, not an extreme number, but we haven’t been into the deep swamp either.”

Schexnayder, Boyce and Callahan reported first-hand or second-hand knowledge of deer in poor condition, “ribs showing or in very poor health,” Schexnayder said — and an explosion in the coyote population.

Boyce’s Timberton tract usually produces big numbers of huntable deer, and he said he knew whitetail herds were in trouble when water levels flooded roads that had never been flooded by any past storms.

Callahan said something needed to be done about the deer season and said he believes reducing the seasons and the bucks-only moves were the proper steps to restoring whitetail populations.

“It was the only way to make sure there will be deer here in the coming years,” he said.

Boyce said he would have backed a move to reduce the season to two weeks.

“The deer definitely needed a break this year, and it’s unfortunate that it comes at a price for deer hunters,” Schexnayder said.

“What I’ve told the guys in our club is to accept the invitations to hunt in Mississippi, somewhere other than here, or try to go duck hunting. We’ll get through this. I still think it was a good decision.”

Schexnayder’s lingering fear is the time line for the “get through it” statement.

“If we lost 90 percent of the fawn population, then we will see the effects of this storm for the next several years,” he said. “What I’m hoping for is that when we get out in the woods and swamps that we might see something different, that we might start seeing deer.

“But right now we need the restrictions.”

Similar restrictions came down in the wake of Hurricane Gustav’s 2008 rampage through the Atchafalaya Basin.

Like the Lake Maurepas Area, the Atchafalaya archery hunters were not affected by changes, but primitive and modern firearms seasons were cut by more than 40 days and either-sex hunts were restricted but not removed from the season framework.

Those restrictions have continued into this season and possibly next year while the Atchafalaya Basin’s deer numbers continue to lag behind normal population growth models.

Schexnayder acknowledged “we might need them (restricted seasons) the next couple of years, then added he realizes that for the Baham (Panama) and McElroy (Timberton and McElroy clubs) deer numbers to rebound, there needs to be a consistent food source.

“The water came up and killed a lot of browse for the deer, and even though we’re seeing some new growth, that new growth will be vulnerable to the cold fronts,” he said. “We have a few acorns, but what’s on the ground not will play out soon, and we could see some deer with problems, especially those back in the deep swamp where they won’t have anything back there to keep them going.

“We’re still going to cook at the camp, have the camaraderie, and watching the ball games,” Schexnayder said. “We’re still good.”