2013-11-21 / Front Page

Jamestown’s launches battle against ticks, Lyme disease

This is the first article of a five-part series on Lyme disease
By Tim Riel

A doe and her two fawns graze in a backyard on Intrepid Lane. 
Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten A doe and her two fawns graze in a backyard on Intrepid Lane. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten More than 70 years ago, Walt Disney introduced the world to Bambi, an inquisitive, coming-ofage deer whose life was turned upside down following his mother’s death. The hunter who shot Bambi’s mom was included on the list by the American Film Institute of the 100 worst villains in movie history. He was the only character on the list not to appear on screen in any way.

While “Bambi” was an animated work of fiction, the fate of the faceless hunter in American history shows the country’s infatuation with deer. Widely considered peaceful, majestic animals, children almost immediately begin a love affair with the animal.

That’s where the problem lies for Jamestown leaders. While black-legged ticks do not become infected with Lyme disease from white-tailed deer, the animal is the main reproductive host for the tick in its adult stage. For that reason, black-legged ticks are more commonly known as deer ticks.

Why is that bad? Because about 60 percent of adult deer ticks are infected with Lyme disease, and about 450,000 tick larvae come from a single deer every season.

Over the last few years, Jamestown has come to the forefront on the battle against ticks. That’s because the island has a higher concentration of Lyme disease than most communities. Some scientists are pointing to the overpopulated deer herd as the primary reason.

According to Gail Mastrati, spokeswoman for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, the state has no data for the number of deer in each municipality. However, Dr. Tom Mather, director of the Center for Vector- Borne Disease at the University of Rhode Island, said there are anywhere between 400 to 500 deer on Conanicut Island.

According to a DEM report, the overabundance of deer can be traced back to a variety of problems, including the lack of natural predators and changing social values about hunting. Jamestown’s estimated herd of 450 deer equates to 45 deer per square mile, about 450 percent more than the desirable level of 10 per square mile for “cultural tolerance and ecological health.”

That’s why the Town Council gave the go-ahead for Councilor Gene Mihaly to spearhead the Tick Task Force, a group of hunters, conservationists, doctors and animal activists.

“Basically every household in town is somehow connected to Lyme or another tick-borne disease,” said Mihaly. “We can’t stand by.”

Before any decision can be made, the task force has been compiling a wealth of knowledge from experts on the subjects of deer, Lyme disease and ticks. Mather is the point man on the project, speaking at town meetings and working closely with the panel. Mihaly has also been in contact with Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a professor who studies infectious diseases at the Yale School of Public Heath.

Along with scientists, Mihaly has sought out state leaders. He’s spoken to DEM Director Janet Coit about less stringent hunting restrictions. He’s talked to state health officials on what constitutes a public health emergency. Mihaly’s even taken the fight to the State House, meeting with Sens. Teresa Paiva Weed, Dominick Ruggerio and Susan Sosnowski, chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Agriculture. Mihaly says Sen. President Paiva Weed plans to hold Senate hearings on issues regarding ticks and Lyme in the upcoming session.

In the House, Mihaly says state representative and fellow Jamestowner Deb Ruggiero is also “very supportive.”

“Scientific opinion is that deer are a critical element in the life cycle of ticks,” said Mihaly. “They think reducing the amount of deer is directly related to reducing the number of diseases from ticks. Our job is to search the best means to do that.”

While it’s most likely impossible to find someone who is pro- Lyme disease, the fight against the disease has caused a stir. The reason for contention is that a mass killing of deer has become a viable option, especially after the state OK’d a cull on Block Island. The Department of Environmental Management on Nov. 7 filed emergency regulations to reduce the deer population in New Shoreham by 80 percent. The regulations allow the state to conduct a baitand shoot culling operation that is expected to begin early next year.

“It’s an interesting development we’re watching closely,” said Mihaly.

Some naturalists, including Conservation Commissioner Pat Driscoll, aren’t so sure a cull is the answer. “I’m not convinced the deer are the root of the problem,” he said.

Others are sympathetic. “Some of my best friend are deer,” said Conservation Commissioner Kate Smith.

One notable example of an effective cull occurred in Monhegan, an island off the coast of Maine that was overrun by about 50 deer per square mile. By the mid-1990s, 13 percent of residents contracted Lyme disease. Townspeople voted handily in 1996 to hire a sharpshooter to eliminate the entire deer herd. The incidence of Lyme dropped to almost none.

“It succeeded, but one experience doesn’t tell us everything,” said Mihaly. “We don’t know exactly what will happen here. Just because it happens on one island doesn’t promise the same results somewhere else.”

On the other hand, Mather recalls visiting Elizabeth Island, just southwest of Cape Cod, in the 1980s when it had close to 600 deer. He returned in 2007 and remembers seeing the same infestation of ticks, despite a reduction in 90 percent of the deer herd.

“It’s not a linear dynamic,” Mather said. “You can squeeze more ticks onto a deer. If you have less deer, maybe there are more ticks on each animal.”

Both Mihaly and Mather admit a deer cull isn’t a guaranteed solution. That’s why the task force is looking at all the options. However, Mihaly admits the task force is not ruling out a bait-and-shoot cull. “It’s an option we have to consider,” he said.

Mihaly hopes an action plan will be in place by the spring of 2014.

“The end point of the task force is to agree on a clear decision on a series of steps to reduce the disease from managing the deer herd,” Mihaly said. “Right now we’re talking about options. There are no easy answers.”

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