Bluetongue, a serious virus with a funny name, has been detected for the first time in New York State deer. It’s a cousin of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (E.H.D.) which first showed up in the state in 2007 and killed 1,500 deer in the lower Hudson Valley in a 2020 outbreak.
This time the deer were not located upstate, but in Southampton Town. The virus is spread by the bite from a midge, or no-see-um, and incubates in a deer for seven days before the animal begins to show symptoms. The virus typically kills an adult deer within 36 hours, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. There is no treatment.
If there is good news, it’s only that the virus cannot be transmitted to humans or pets.
Symptoms along the way to death are unpleasant, and include fever, difficulty breathing, dehydration, and swelling of the neck and tongue, caused by internal hemorrhaging. Deer may appear disoriented and lose some of their characteristic fear of humans. The fever causes deer to seek out water, where deceased bluetongue-infected deer are often found.
Attraction to water is what Scott Smith, an East Hampton Village resident, witnessed just after sunrise, on Sept. 11, while surfing with his son, Wyatt, at Beach Lane.
“When I first saw the deer, it came running over the dune, full bore. I thought it was being chased by dogs,” he said. “If it was a human, I would have thought that it had just witnessed a horrific crime.”
Mr. Smith watched the deer stare out at the horizon for many minutes before it ran down the beach and then into the water, where “it was getting absolutely pummeled by the waves.” The waves were four to five feet that morning, with a slight offshore breeze.
The deer pushed through the breaking waves and swam “a good mile” offshore. “It was mind boggling,” he said.
Drew Smith (no relation to Scott Smith), the head lifeguard for East Hampton Village, said he got a call from the village police about the deer even before the lifeguards showed up to work that day. “We tracked it all morning and afternoon,” he said. “It just sat down by the jetty by Main Beach. We tried to steer it up towards the dunes, but when we did, it swam straight out to sea. So, we let it stand by the waves in ankle deep water and just kept a perimeter around it.”
“A 200-pound buck with five-foot waves behind it made quite the visual,” he said, “and people were taking pictures. People wanted us to lasso it and save it.” Animal control advised against that, suggesting that the lifeguards just keep their distance.
After the beaches had closed for the day, Scott Smith and his wife Erica Broberg, an architect, took a walk on the beach and saw the deer again. By this time, Mr. Smith said it was exhausted. “It was disoriented. It was staring at us but almost seemed as if it was blind. There was nothing physically wrong with the deer, but you could see there was despair,” he said.
The next morning the deer was dead, found half submerged in the sand, not far from where it had spent the previous day. The carcass was collected by town lifeguards before the beach opened, and taken to the East Hampton Town Recycling Center. The D.E.C. never tested the carcass for the virus, but its symptoms were consistent with bluetongue and E.H.D.
In an email, the D.E.C. said it estimates “the current deer population in Suffolk County to be between 25,400 to 34,600 deer. This population estimate is derived from recent (2004-2012) population estimates in the towns of Brookhaven, East Hampton, and Shelter Island in conjunction with National Land Cover Data (NLDC).”
The D.E.C. expects midges to spread the virus further but said, “There is no way to predict how many deer will succumb or in what specific areas deer will be infected.” The midges, which spread the disease, will be killed off by cold weather shortly after the first frost arrives.
“This is kind of a new one for us,” said Chris Strub, the executive director of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays. He said that while they have “no confirmed cases in our facility yet,” they’re working with the D.E.C. should any suspected animals come their way. “We’re keeping an eye out for it,” he said.
The D.E.C. asks the public to do the same. Should you come across a deer that is unusally attracted to water, or a carcass close to water, contact the D.E.C.’s Long Island office at 631-444-0200. It will be able to test the tissue and blood and determine the cause of death, adding bluetongue to its list of possibilities.