The remains of a deer are seen in Clinton County, north of Lansing. The spike in whitetail deaths is hurting hunting supply shops. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
The evidence of what's going on at the Bouwkamp property near Muskegon is all around, but all you really have to do is smell.
This year the family's 60 acres of hunting ground have yielded nine deer carcasses — victims of an unprecedented outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in Michigan's whitetail population. And that's just on the half of the property that's not covered by marsh.
"Downwind, you can smell more dead deer out there," said Brian Bouwkamp, 29, a painter who has hunted the family land since he was 12. "But you just can't get in to investigate. For every one we've found, there are probably a lot more."
The infectious disease was first detected in Michigan deer in 1955. But nothing comes close to what's happening in 2012. The disease poses no threat to humans, but more deer have died from the disease this year than all others combined.
As of Oct. 8, Michigan's Department of Natural Resources reported 8,671 cases of whitetails killed by the disease — most located in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula. And as farmers harvest their crops and clear fields, that number could reach 10,000.
Various outbreaks of the disease since 1955 had killed an estimated total of 2,150 deer before this year.
Spread by small flies called midges, the disease causes massive internal hemorrhaging. Seven days after infection, deer become weak and feverish, and eventually fall unconscious and die.
State officials said they believe the reason behind the spike this year is the near-record warm temperatures parts of Michigan have seen in recent winters, as well as drought conditions. Grand Rapids came within 3 degrees of the 1932 record for warmest winter, and it sits right in the trouble zone for this year's outbreak.
"Something has changed that has allowed this virus to persist in the environment," said Brent Rudolph, head of the DNR's deer and elk program. Warmer temperatures may be allowing midges to survive the winter months, and those drought conditions may be turning streams and ponds into the kinds of mudflats where midges breed, he added.
A good frost will usually stop the disease and bring an outbreak to a halt, Rudolph said.
But this year's whitetail deaths are already having an impact.
Working at Al and Pete's Sports Shop in Hastings, Jeff Schantz has become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the hunting business. He's particularly attuned at this time of year, when the store does the bulk of its business. Three weeks into archery season, business has been disappointing, he said.
"It's definitely hurt us," said Schantz, 43. "Gun sales, bow sales, crossbow sales, arrows, broadheads, slugs … you name it, the numbers are down. Some people aren't even going to hunt this year."
Hunting shops aren't the only ones feeling the bite. Steve Hall is used to seeing two to three deer come through the door of his processing and taxidermy business each day during archery season. He's seen about half that so far.
"Everyone I talk to has bad news — people not seeing any deer or people coming across dead ones on their property," said Hall, 50. "The upcoming season is basically my Christmas. Sometimes it starts slow, but never this slow."
For the Bouwkamps, the rising number of dead deer may force some tough decisions.
"We don't think we're going to be shooting any deer this year," he said. "We want to give whatever deer are left a chance to repopulate."