Because New England boasts a culture of popular political participation, ticks and their ill effects have become political issues as well.
Legislators from across the state overcame Republican Governor Charlie Baker's veto in July, enacting a measure almost unanimously which requires insurers to cover long term treatments for Lyme disease. Baker, a former health insurance executive, belongs to a medical camp that questions the science behind long term treatment with antibiotics. But constituents demanded action and won this.
Martha's Vineyard Boards of Health have been studying the tick situation. The Island’s unofficial tick czar, biologist Richard Johnson, has been making the rounds this summer, encouraging practical steps to avoid bites; permethrin-soaked clothing, tucking pants into socks, and careful self inspection rank high.
But he is also gently trying to prepare the way for an intervention guaranteed to set off a political kerfuffle. The life cycle of ticks (Martha's Vineyard hosts three disease bearing varieties) requires eggs to hatch as nymphs, then feeding on the blood of rodents and passing deer, before maturing in the leaf cover of forests over a winter, and then feasting on any large passing mammal, such as an occasional human but more often, again, on deer. Deer don't get tick-borne illnesses, but people do. The study Johnson works with suggests the way to reduce the tick danger is clear cut: Martha's Vineyard needs to cull the deer population.
Johnson describes the island as a perfect human-created deer breeding habitat; thickly forested areas are gone, while every new home creates open clearings where deer like to feed. Where once the island supported less than a thousand deer, a new survey suggests today there are 5000.
So how to reduce the deer numbers? All Johnson's suggestions are potentially politically fraught.
- Extend legal deer hunting and bring in experienced hunters.
- Allow hunting on more private land.
- And legalize and facilitate distribution of venison to Island food pantries.