Federal grant awarded to URI to study Jamestown’s deer tick problem
The University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease was awarded $77,000 by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a plan to lower the incidences of Lyme disease from ticks that settle on Jamestown’s copious population of whitetail deer.
“On average, during the fall season, which is peek of adult-stage ticks, each deer ends up filling up five ticks everyday,” Dr. Thomas Mather said. Mather is the director of the Center for Vector-Borne Disease and also a professor of entomology at URI.
As recently as 1986, there were no deer sightings in Jamestown, but the population has been steadily growing over the last 25 years. Today, estimates range as high as 400 deer, which is more than 40 deer per square mile, making the chances of encountering a deer tick significantly higher than it has been in the past.
Deer ticks – also known as blacklegged ticks – carry the Lyme disease pathogen at an alarming rate. About 20 percent of blacklegged tick nymphs are infected with Lyme disease spirochetes, while half of all adult females are contaminated. If Lyme disease goes untreated, it can attack the joints, heart and even central nervous system of the infected human.
Mather’s will first establish a committee of seven voting members. “It should really be a Jamestown-based committee,” he said. Mather has already decided on Dr. Joseph England, a family practice physician from Jamestown, and Lori Gibson, who is a retired wildlife biologist for the state.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser addressed the situation at Monday’s Town Council meeting, urging Jamestown resi- dents to participate in the project. Mather will meet with Keiser to select two at-large committee members to join Mather’s team, and the state’s Department of Health and Department of Environmental Management will each appoint someone from their offices to participate on Mather’s committee.
Although the research project is in its infant stages, Mather already has some ideas on what he plans to do. One method of tick control is to use a four-post device, which targets the ticks without harming the deer. According to Mather’s website – tickencouter.org – the “fourpost has a central bin filled with corn (to attract deer) that trickles into specially designed feeding troughs surrounded by a pair of foam posts at either end of the device. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved acaricide, to kill ticks, is applied weekly to the foam posts by a licensed pesticide applicator. Deer rub their head against these posts while attempting to get the corn, applying the acaricide directly to the deer’s head and neck, which is where most ticks feed. Most of the ticks are killed before having a chance to reproduce.”
Mather is adamant that the residents of Jamestown have their say about how he puts the federal money to use. After his committee is established and preliminary research is completed, he plans on reporting to the town with the possible solutions. Along with the four-post plan, there are other, more controversial approaches like deer-reductions strategies that he could try to implement, but he would want to make sure that the town is on board.
“What my intentions are is to come up with a plan and gauge the citizens acceptance of it, so we can go ahead and implement it,” Mather said.
At the half-year mark, Mather would like to schedule an open town meeting to discuss his ideas and to get feedback from the community. “I don’t want any plans derailed because not many people agree with our decisions,” he said. “People will have a real opportunity to voice their opinions and hopefully they will. I also hope we agree on one thing; that action can be taken and will be taken.”
Should the committee and the town can agree on a plan of action, Mather believes that more grant money will follow. If the Center for Disease Control sees that an effective plan has been discussed and agreed upon, they could very well continue to fund the project with hopes that the deer tick epidemic can be controlled.
“The most exciting aspect of Rhode Island winning this feasibility assessment contract is that it may lead to additional funding for actually implementing a disease reduction plan in a heavily impacted municipality,” Mather said. Rhode Island is second to Connecticut in “per capita incidence of tick-transmitted disease.”
“Hopefully at this point everyone is applauding because we brought federal money to Jamestown to help fix a serious problem,” Mather said. “Hopefully good can come out of it and we can make for healthier living in Jamestown.”