Attendees of a recent forum about deer came away with one inescapable conclusion: If the East End doesn’t take concerted action fast, the Lyme disease epidemic will grow much worse.
Thirty years ago, Lyme disease was thought to be an inconvenience outdoors enthusiasts on the East End had to deal with. Those who suffered from it knew better, however.
For too long, Lyme and other tick-transmitted diseases were treated as necessary nuisances. Now, federal, state, and local governments are dealing with an epidemic that is quickly spreading. The footprint of infested area covers much of the country, and New York State is inundated. Scientists are left to wonder if it’s too late to control not only Lyme, but also other tick-related ailments that in some cases could be fatal.
On August 20, the Accabonac Protection Committee sponsored a forum, “Ticks: Facts, Fictions & the Unknown.” The fact that 80 or so people showed up attests to the increased awareness that we have a problem that must be immediately addressed, said Zachary Cohen, an organizer.
Dr. Tamson Yeh from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Dr. Anne Marie Wellins, who is on the advisory panel of the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, and Sean O’Neal, the Peconic Baykeeper, spoke at the gathering.
Last month the New York State Health Department released a report with an alarming finding: Lyme disease, and tick infestation in general, is multiplying quickly across the state and beyond. It’s not solely the problem of the East End anymore, let alone Lyme, CT, where the first ever case was supposedly reported in 1975.
An increasing number of cases of Lyme, caused by a bacteria spread through the bite of deer ticks, are coming from areas such as Central New York and the Adirondacks.
“What I call the leading edge is a line between Syracuse and Rochester,” said Bryon Backenson, the health department’s deputy director of communicable disease control. “Syracuse is seeing a higher incidence of cases than Rochester is, but with every year it moves further and further.” Just over half of adult deer ticks collected in New York State carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, newly released state data shows.
The rate for tick nymphs is about half that of adults, at 27 percent, but the nymphs account for the vast majority of Lyme disease in humans because they are harder to see and thus remove from skin. They are also most active in summer, when people spend more time outside.
Counties in the Hudson Valley have the highest number of deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, and the greatest percentage of ticks carrying the Lyme bacteria, known scientifically as Borrelia burgdorferi. The problem is not being adequately addressed, the speakers agreed. There is no coordinated plan of attack, no blueprint to rein in the out-of-control growth, and funds for that purpose are hard to come by.
East Hampton, like most local communities, has spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the problem without actually doing very much about it.
Five years ago, the East Hampton Group for Wildlife championed a trial program of “Four-Posters,” plastic deer feeding stations. The stations are placed in areas where deer are known to forage and congregate. Each feeding station is stocked with corn meal, which attracts deer (and other animals, like raccoons, squirrels, and mice). A deer feeding at a four-poster comes into contact with the rollers, which apply permethrin, an insecticide to their ears, face, head, neck, and shoulders.
Cohen pointed out the deer could be given some sort of contraceptive as well when feeding at the stations.
The town seemed of mind to implement the plan, at least on a trial basis, but Cohen said the then East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell got cold feet. “He was afraid of the liability,” Cohen said. He said the town was concerned that children would play on the feeding stations and get exposed to the chemicals.
“It’s expensive, but it has been shown to reduce deer population,” Dr. Wellins said. “There has to be a coordinated, regional approach.”
Cornell University conducted a Four-Poster Deer and Tick Study from 2008 through 2011 on Shelter Island and Fire Island, to investigate human and wildlife associated risks due to changes in deer movement and behavior from placement of Four-Posters and permethrin residues in and on deer, and the efficacy of the technology for control of blacklegged and lone star ticks.
The study was conducted on Shelter Island and Fire Island where four-posters are being deployed, and in the Village of North Haven, which was included as a control site.
There was also a significant five-year study conducted in Massachusetts that ended in 2014. “We deployed a total of 42 four-posters among seven treatment sites and sampled for nymph and adult ticks at these sites and at seven untreated control sites during each year of the study. Study sites were distributed among Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket,” reported scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Narragansett, RI. Blacklegged tick abundance at treated sites was reduced by approximately 8.4 percent, which disappointed the testers. That is, “considerably less than in previous four-poster studies,” they noted. Researchers weren’t sure why.
Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced a new state initiative to fund a four-poster program; that story appears in this issue of The Independent.
At the epicenter of the Lyme disease problem is deer. Deer carry the blacklegged tick but do not themselves transmit Lyme as small rodents like mice, etc. do. But they are the primary carriers of the disease.
“The deer have an abundant food source here, delicious flowers,” Dr. Wellins pointed out. Any suggestion that the local deer policy has remained about the same over the years is erroneous. They exist in unprecedented numbers. “They aren’t even afraid anymore,” she added.
The blacklegged ticks tend to be homebodies — until they latch onto a deer capable of carrying hundreds of ticks. Deer fencing helps keep them out of some yards, but it doesn’t decrease the herd. Southold Town, its farm fields ravished by deer, instituted a deer management program in 2008.
“Since the initial 2008 hunting season with seven deer harvested, we have grown each year with a total of 241 deer taken during the 2016 season, with 129 donated. In cooperation with Fish & Wildlife Unlimited, our program to date has donated over 45,000 pounds of venison for Venison Coalition, feeding the hungry on Long Island,” wrote Jeffery Standish, director of the Southold Public Works Program.
The Southold Town Board has selected the use of archery as its deer management tool and allows trained bow hunters to safely remove deer from both rural and urban areas.
“The Southold Town Board and staff will continue to pursue the implementation of other, non-lethal management methods of the white-tail deer when suitable options become available,” the town policy on the matter states.
A deer sterilization program enacted in East Hampton Village in 2015 proved to be a disaster. Deer were trapped and surgically sterilized in the middle of the night before being released back into the cold of winter. A team from White Buffalo Inc., a Connecticut nonprofit that specializes in deer management, claimed 114 were sterilized.
However, horror tales began circulating about the grisly methodology and effectiveness of the program, and several mutilated deer carcasses were found. The village, though loath to admit it had made a mistake, quietly backed away from the plan. It is now considering a controlled shoot.
Long Term Policy
Dr. Wellins said every method of reducing the herd should be on the table. “In the old days, people ate the meat,” she said. “I don’t know why they don’t now. It’s like deer have become cute pets.”
The problem is, like Southold, East Hampton Village is not an island. It is impossible to achieve an accurate count when the deer run from one jurisdiction to another. Old-timers recall back in the ’60s when deer season opened in Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, the animals would simply swim across the bay to Cedar Point the first time a gun was fired. When the state hunting season began, the deer would move to non-hunting areas and so on.
It is obvious a concerted, costly, and long-term policy of deer control must be agreed upon and implemented.
A regional approach is the only sensible way to go about the business of controlling ticks by addressing the deer herd. If females are taken from the herd, the remaining females will give birth more often.
“Given the severity of the disease and the costs to society, we are grossly under-spending,” Cohen pointed out.
In East Hampton, he would like to see four-posters installed at the Montauk Downs golf course and Shadmoor preserve as test sites. He has urged the town to clear trails it owns four or five feet wide to alleviate the infestation of ticks. “No one wants to go out on them anymore,” he said of hikers.
Deer ticks aren’t the only kind prevalent on the East End that can get you sick, and Lyme disease is but one of several tick-transmitted ailments. See an accompanying article elsewhere in this issue.