Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tick talk

For nearly two months I've been running about in the woods here in this epicenter of tick-borne diseases, and I'm happy to report that so far I seem to have avoided having any of the little monsters attach themselves. Just to be on the safe side, I took the advice of island tick biologist Richard Johnson and acquired some "poison socks" -- they are impregnated with permethrin and are supposed to stun the little pests. So far, no ill effects -- my skin is still there.

The Vineyard Gazette has published the results of an online survey about the island's tick problem and possible solutions. This is a serious matter; it's not good for the tourist business to be known for Lyme disease. Among the 1300 people who volunteered their views through the survey, 68 percent had contracted Lyme disease themselves or known a close family member to experience a tick illness.

When I last wrote about this, I highlighted the possible political fallout. Scientists advocate culling the deer population to break up the tick breeding cycle which thrives on these warm blooded hosts. (Deer don't become ill from Lyme disease exposure as humans do.) This Manhattan-size island apparently provides a home to about 5000 deer -- I see them leaping away through the bushes almost every morning. Johnson proposed hiring efficient, experienced hunters to reduce the deer numbers; allowing more hunting on private land; and reforming health regulations that prevent donations of venison to food pantries.
There are a lot of touchy subjects embedded in those suggestions: off the top I thought about resistance to hunting in general, to guns (this is mega-liberal-land), concern for private property rights, disdain for food pantry clients, and so much more. I was interested to read comments at the Gazette as their report was headlined: "Survey Shows Strong Support for Culling Island Deer Herd."

The survey also drew hundreds of comments, ranging from calls for more research to demands for immediate action.

...“It is disappointing that Vineyard authorities are not taking more concrete, aggressive steps to deal with this grave threat to the people of the Vineyard,” one respondent said.

“This problem needs to be taken much more seriously. All towns need to fund solutions,” said another.

... “We no longer take hikes in the woods, the state forest and some beaches,” wrote one resident. “Even though we live a mile outside of town, we have a serious deer problem in the neighborhood and we pick ticks off of ourselves and our dog daily just by staying in our yard.”

“It is the single thing in my view that keeps the Vineyard from being perfect,” another wrote. “You cannot really go to certain places on the Island without seriously worrying about getting a horrible illness.”

Many who said they favored “significantly reducing the deer herd on Martha’s Vineyard” had comments and questions about what “significantly” meant and how it might be accomplished.

“I answered ‘yes’ but with the caveat that a very carefully vetted analysis be done by qualified scientists as to the number of deer which could be safely culled so as to not permanently degrade the viability of deer on the Island,” wrote one respondent.

“As a last option because I realize that the ticks also get Lyme from other places too,” wrote another. “We need to consider the mice and other rodents. I would also want to make sure the deer meat to be used to feed people and not to be wasted if we hired professional hunters.”

Many respondents wanted to be assured that the venison would be used for food and not wasted.

Of the 1,311 respondents, 50 identified themselves as hunters. Three-quarters of these said either they or a family member had contracted a tick-borne illness and 80 per cent said they would favor significantly reducing the deer herd.

Online comments on the articles were not so unanimous nor so politely stated, as is often the case in electronic discussions. Here is a small sampling from a vigorous back and forth:

Killing deer won't do it, you would have to kill all our small animals and birds as well.There must be a better way not to destroy the chain of life,and not using pesticides to kill us all.With all the pills to cure almost everything there is,just watch TV,can't the scientists come up with a safe plan for us all, and not have to kill off other beings, we are all connected.

Eliminate the deer. They are a health hazard and a huge danger to motorists. They will also threaten your future income from tourists. You also need to put a bounty on the skunks. PETA members and sympathizers clearly run this island and are pleased to have it stink like skunk year round and pass around another round of antibiotics cause I think I have yet another tick bite. Thanks PETA! Next time your kid gets Lyme, we'll just chock it up to "cohabitating with nature".

Cull is a nice word to use but why not just say kill or slaughter. Is that too harsh a description? You can kill ALL the deer on the Island & that is not going to stop the tick population. Ticks are resilient & will still be here long after all the deer are gone. Ticks on deer start with mice & small rodents. To eliminate the tick population you should begin with discussion of the elimination of mice & small rodents, not the mass slaughter of deer. That might make some hunters happy but will not eliminate the ticks.

I have a herd of deer in my yard almost weekly. I think we need to add coyotes to the island to kill of the deer, rabbits and skunks. We are being overtaken by these animals who have no predators.

Beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences -- DO NOT INTRODUCE any major predators such as coyotes, red fox or wolves (or anything else that has sharp teeth!) because you will wipe out the few remaining ground nesting birds (why introduce quail if you also introduce their ace predator?), domestic animals, farm animals (including sheep, pigs, calves, poultry), and prove a danger to all of us who love and enjoy the outdoors. Deer have been increasing dramatically in numbers (as have skunks, raccoons, and rats along with other rodents and chipmunks/squirrels) and they not only carry ticks they have been particularly efficient for the past several years at destroying gardens and eating crops, as well as eating all sorts of horticultural plants.

...Yes deer are cute to look at and no one likes to think of killing anything, but deer are not endangered here and they are both a nuisance and a menace because of their numbers. In fact, they are so numerous that they are over running their habitat. A massive deer cull by trained hunters could reduce the numbers to a manageable size. We also need to eliminate a lot of the skunk/raccoon and rat population as well as mice. This seems brutal but the alternatives are worse. Do you want a coyote/red wolf in your back yard chowing down on Bambi who has just eaten the plants under your dining room windows, the plants on pots on your deck or your whole market crop? Have you ever experienced a skunk/raccoon kill in your chicken coop with bloody corpses and feathers everywhere?

What I don't understand is that at such a high cost to not do it, so many people are against deer culling. Why? Deer are so prolific on the island and we do nothing to curb their population. We also do not listen to the science, which clearly says that if you reduce the deer population you will reduce Lyme disease. What don't we understand?

The tick borne disease plague on the island involves five New England towns, all with their own governing leaders and their own traditions of local decision making. The deer problem -- the tick problem -- will find its way into discussions outside the post office, at the public library, in town meetings, maybe even in local selectmen elections. The issues involved are cross cutting; people are largely not locked into fixed positions in relation to an emerging threat. Though finding solutions is an urgent need, the threat is not so novel as to scare people silly. How Islanders work this out will be an interesting problem in popular democracy. Nobody is giving away their right to an opinion here ... I will be trying to follow the Island's deer decisions from afar.
This little kerfuffle, while potentially deadly for many deer, the ticks, and even some Lyme disease sufferers, is about the extent of current politics that I feel I can treat as spectator sport. This election season has become a deadly serious test of our dysfunctional institutions and our ethical choices as a democratic people. No joke there.

1 comment:

ellen kirkendall said...

Ticks are a major issue on the Cape too. I might not be reluctant to take a walk in the woods but prefer not to take my short legged curious dog there. Lyme is endemic on the Cape and Islands no matter how much the Chambers of Commerce would like to pretend if isn't. Rabies is a more serious problem here - a man from Brewster died (last year?) from a rabid bat bite. The town government structure slows everything down but I personally think keeping these problems (and the other, more human ones) from tourists cause just as much trouble.

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