2014-03-06 / Front Page

New England copes with Lyme

Symposium Wednesday to learn how communities have dealt with epidemic
By Tim Riel

It was 17 years ago when three men with rifles took the ferry from the mainland 12 nautical miles along the southern edge of Muscongus Bay and docked at the little island of Monhegan.

The armed group spent 72 hours on the plantation, firing their weapons a total of 53 times – 52 deer were killed. They returned the next two springs, baiting, shooting and disposing of 27 more. After more than four decades with deer, Monhegan Island’s herd had been eradicated.

Jamestown’s Tick Task Force will meet Wednesday to discuss how other New England communities have dealt with ticks, deer and Lyme. The forum begins at 7 p.m. and will highlight Monhegan Island, Nantucket, Islesboro, Mumford Point, Shelter Island and Block Island.

Monhegan Island has a land area of less than a square mile, smaller than the Beavertail section of Jamestown if Conanicut Island were separated at Mackerel Cove. Nine deer were brought to the plantation in 1955, and by 1997, the herd and human population were nearly parallel, about 80 each. (Like Jamestown, the number of people on Monhegan swells with tourists in the summer.)

Officials were concerned. More than one in 10 people on the island had Lyme disease, and the percentage was rising each year. Residents finally had enough. They voted to contract Anthony DeNicola, a sharpshooter with a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology. DeNicola’s company, White Buffalo Inc., was tasked with drastically reducing the herd.

With night scopes, silencers and precision marksmanship, DeNicola and his team slashed the deer population by about two-thirds in a matter of days. About 30 deer were left for the hunters.

“Before we got there,” DeNicola said, “hunting deer was like shoot- ing fish in a barrel.”

That changed drastically after the April 1997 cull. With most of the herd wiped out, hunters found the search too difficult. With the sport no longer viable, the town voted 31-23 the following year to have DeNicola make deer extinct.

The ratio today of humans to deer on the plantation is 75-0. Lyme is nearly as hard to find as the deer. The number of new cases of Lyme had fallen to zero within a few years of the eradication.

Another example is Mumford Cove in Groton, Conn., where deer were reduced from 77 per square mile to 10 per square mile after two years of controlled hunting. Incidences of Lyme disease, according to a report by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, decreased by 83 percent among residents.

The community of Shelter Island, N.Y., is allowing nuisance hunting in 2014 so deer can be legally shot and killed outside of the general hunting season. Nantucket, an island 30 miles south of mainland Massachusetts, employed a similar strategy in 2005 when it extended its hunting season by a week. Hundreds of hunters descended on the town, ultimately killing 246 deer. That effort was axed before the second season could begin, however, after an epidemic of off-island hunters were caught searching for their kill on private property.

Islesboro, Maine, voted for a cull in 2011: 100-28. The decision came after 70 of the town’s 600 residents were diagnosed with Lyme disease. The community wants to eliminate 400 deer from the herd of 500 by next year.

There is no guarantee that a reduction of deer in a community affects the presence of Lyme disease. In fact, there are studies contradicting the method. The Jamestown task force, however, is looking at the situation from all angles.

Jamestown will keep a close eye on Block Island, which has been in contact with DeNicola following last year’s decision by state environmental officials to allow a bait and shoot.

Nothing about

DeNicola’s work is recreational, he says. “There is no element of sport. This isn’t hunting. We’re baiting and systematically shooting.”

As opposed to average hunter, who aims for the chest cavity, DeNicola’s teams shoot for the center of the brain. If they miss, the bullet escapes the deer completely.

“The animal isn’t maimed,” he said. “It doesn’t suffer. We shoot to kill.”

Missing, however, isn’t typical. Marksmen with White Buffalo only miss about 2 percent of the time – about one in every 50 shots.

“It’s about understanding the deer’s movement,” said DeNicola. “It’s knowing when the deer will move its head. It’s timing as much as aiming.”

Residents are invited to attend the roundtable discussion on Wednesday. Presenters will delve more into specifics about how other communities have taken steps to deal with deer and their affect on Lyme disease.

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