2013-08-08 / Front Page

Council-appointed task force will combat Lyme

New board will draft action plan to protect the public
By Margo Sullivan


There are 400 to 500 deer living in Jamestown, and officials say that number needs to be reduced by 75 percent to make the town safe from Lyme disease. 
Photo by andrea von hohenleiten There are 400 to 500 deer living in Jamestown, and officials say that number needs to be reduced by 75 percent to make the town safe from Lyme disease. Photo by andrea von hohenleiten Calling Lyme disease a “near epidemic” on the island, the Town Council on Monday created a new task force and charged it to come up with an action plan to protect the public.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re addressing public safety concerns,” Council President Kristine Trocki said. She went on to say the council has “no greater task” than to ensure the health and safety of residents. Solving this problem will be a top priority, she added.

Councilor Eugene Mihaly, who will head the task force, summed up the town’s response to Lyme as too much study with too little follow-up action.

“This is a subject that’s been talked about in terms of data too much and in terms of action too little,” Mihaly said. “This is a mounting health problem everywhere in New England, but certainly it is intense here.”

“We have come to accept it is a public health crisis,” Councilor Blake Dickinson said.

The prior Town Council hired consultants who collected Jamestown specific information about deer ticks and studied options for thinning the deer herd. However, the entire council was voted out of office and action was stalled.

Last month, at their July 15 meeting, the councilors heard recommendations from the University of Rhode Island’s Dr. Tom Mather, an expert on ticks. He suggested combining two solutions: stepping up ways to control the deer population, and educating residents about personal protection, such as applying tick repellents and treating their lawns.

“We think there are a couple of avenues to take,” Dickinson said.

The council is now seeking public input.

According to Dickinson, one of the town’s goals is a “sensitive” issue – reducing the deer herd to 100 animals.

“But clearly, we’re going to do something,” he said.

Trocki said residents can find a new tutorial on the town web- site about ticks. The information, which Town Administrator Bruce Keiser has collected, will help people learn how to identify deer ticks, the type that spread Lyme disease.

“We need to take much more bold steps both in educating the public about personal protection and in thinning the deer herd,” Keiser said.

The past council had intended to hold a public workshop about Lyme disease, and Keiser said these councilors intend to do the same. “It will certainly be part of our efforts,” he said.

According to Keiser, the deer population would need to sink to 100 animals – or 10 per square mile – to minimize the threat of Lyme disease. Currently, the deer census is between 400 and 500.

He said the town has looked for new properties where deer could be hunted without endangering the human population. A new map was developed. However, most of the possibilities are already being hunted.

“The town reservoir property is hunted by town employees,” he said. “What we don’t have is a number of privately owned parcels.”

Keiser said the town reached out to owners of deer-heavy properties in 2011, but the effort was unsuccessful. The town mailed out 40 letters, asking for permission to hunt the property. Only one reply was received.

“We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves,” Mihaly said, who pointed out Mather had advised caution about any plan to kill the deer because it would not be practical.

“It may well be the best thing to do, but first we need public support for whatever it is we do,” Mihaly said. He called for a “very serious public education campaign so people see the dimensions.”

It isn’t only Lyme disease, according to Mihaly, who said deer ticks carry other serious diseases, too.

“I don’t think most people realize how big it is and what they can do personally to defend themselves,” he said. “And then the bigger question, what do we do long term to address it?”

Mihaly proposed a task force to come up with an action plan to educate people and then to deal with the deer, either by eradication or using other measures such as sterilization.

“If we decide reducing the herd is the only approach, we need something more serious than we’re doing now,” he said.

According to Mihaly, the town may have to ask the state Department of Environmental Management for waivers to allow killing deer beyond the state limit.

“But that’s the second step,” he said.

Julie Janson, a Jamestown resident who brought the issue to the council’s attention several weeks ago, said as part of the public education effort, she would like to see stories told in the local newspaper about people who have suffered from Lyme disease. She suggested people who disagree with hunting might change their minds under pressure from the community. She also said she would like to see the issue “rebranded” as an effort to “bring Jamestown back” to a time before the deer arrived. She quoted a statement Mather made to suggest deer were not on the island prior to 1986.

Mihaly said the councilors have already contacted the local newspaper about a public education campaign.

Jamestown resident B.J. Whitehouse said he is a survivor of Lyme disease and has no qualms about killing deer.

“Here’s one person who couldn’t care less,” he said. “I have no concerns whatsoever about killing deer.”

Bruce Dickinson, the brother of Blake, said he hunts and would like the town to make another effort to persuade owners of large properties to allow hunting. Dickinson said these people may be concerned about liability issues, and the town could help educate them about the laws, which would protect them from lawsuits. He volunteered to serve on the task force.

Jamestowner Chris Walsh commented on correspondence written by James Rugh of America Way. Rugh sent the councilors a letter about a new humane approach to the deer overpopulation developed by the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy. The idea is to give the deer birth control.

“It sounded not terribly expensive,” Walsh said, but added the birth control medication would have to be repeated every two years. Moreover, the experiment would probably have to be combined with some other method of thinning the herd, he said, because a successful outcome from birth control would mean a reduction of only 50 percent of the herd in five years.

Trocki said these questions would be up to the task force to research and answer.

Councilor Mary Meagher said she is also a Lyme disease survivor.

“People don’t want to see us cull the deer,” she said. However, Meagher added, it has become “almost epidemic.” The problem has gone beyond annoyances about deer eating the garden plants, she said.

“It changed. It’s different. It’s worse,” she said.

Mihaly said the task force will move quickly to come up with an action plan. He has already contacted several people to serve on the panel, he said. Several residents at the meeting, including Janson, said they would like to participate. Trocki said the councilors want to hear from as many people as possible.

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