The Ongoing Battle Between Lead and Lyme
They are beautiful animals, particularly those spotted fawns, and many people enjoy seeing them. But as deer populations in southern and coastal Maine climbed to historic levels in the past twenty years, people have come to see white-tailed deer as disease-bearing, vegetable-eating, road hazards.
On July 13, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 72 percent increase in Lyme disease in 2008. That’s on top of a 57 percent increase in 2007. Nine hundred Mainers were diagnosed with this painful, life-altering disease in 2008. That matches the 918 cases reported from 1990 through 2003, demonstrating an escalating problem. Maine’s southern counties, Cumberland and York, reported the most cases in 2008, but Lyme disease has been marching north at a constant rate.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected deer tick. The disease often causes joint pain and fatigue, but is much more severe in some cases, even debilitating. And it is difficult to diagnose. “When we’re fortunate enough and people show up and tell us that they’ve had a tick, and then they get a rash and the rash is an expanding red rash at the site of the bite, that’s an easy diagnosis,” Dr. Bea Szantyr, a Lincoln-based physician who specializes in Lyme disease education, told the Associated Press in a recent news story. “The problem is, most people don’t remember a tick attachment and not everyone gets a rash,” she said.
As a hunter, I’m well aware of deer ticks. Not an issue for Maine hunters until the last few years, deer ticks are now a constant concern from the spring turkey season right through November’s firearms season on deer. If you notice an embedded tick soon enough, a dose of antibiotic takes care of the problem.
Ironically, I got through Maine’s turkey season, removing a number of deer ticks before they got attached to me. Then I suffered an embedded deer tick in my thigh while in Massachusetts at the end of May for our son’s wedding. A quick trip to the doctor and a single dose of antibiotic after I got home did the trick.
At least I hope so. Sometimes the symptoms of Lyme disease occur years after the bite. Anyone who spends time outdoors – and that’s most of us – now risks Lyme disease as the price for our fun.
In that same Associated Press story, Debbie Casterlin of Cumberland County, whose daughter got Lyme disease including meningitis-type symptoms and loss of the left side of her body, said, “We just know that our choices to be outside, farming and landscaping, means we’re always going to have to keep a full-length mirror in our bathroom and be like the primates and chimpanzees and pick each other for ticks.”
Hunters vs. Ticks
Although Lyme disease hasn’t stopped many Mainers from going outside, it has caused some to rethink their negative attitudes about hunting. The only effective method of deer population control is hunting with firearms.
Yet more than 100 municipalities restrict or ban firearm discharges in some areas and tens of thousands of acres of private land are now posted against hunting. Land posting in southern Maine is an epidemic.
While bowhunting is now being tried in some no-firearm-discharge zones to control deer populations, its limited success rate and small number of participants make it an ineffective population-control tool. “In a lot of towns that have real deer tick problems, hunting is not allowed,” notes Mary Holman, a researcher with the Lyme Disease Research Laboratory in Portland. “So that’s a problem, because the herd is not being controlled.”
No hunting advocate or wildlife biologist could have expressed it any better.
Lyme disease isn’t the only problem caused by the over-population of deer. Today, before I wrote this column, I passed a dead fawn on the side of the road, killed in a collision with a motor vehicle. These days, any driver could hit a deer anywhere in the state. Research in 2004 by outdoor reporter Roberta Scruggs discovered that from 1999 to 2003, three people were killed and 783 injured in motor vehicle collisions with deer. The economic impact of those crashes – just from 1999 to 2001 – was estimated at $47 million, with an average cost per crash of $3,800. Twenty thousand drivers hit deer in the five years from 1998 to 2003.
Even though Maine’s reputation with deer hunters is centered in the North Woods, most deer today are found in central and southern Maine. We’re down to one or two deer per square mile in the north woods, but have up to 100 deer per square mile in some coastal areas.
Most deer crashes occur in Cumberland, York, Kennebec, and Penobscot counties. And in the five years from 1998 to 2003, Auburn recorded more collisions than any other city or town: 237. Scarborough and York shared the top spot in 2003, with forty-five collisions apiece.
The third major problem is deer damage to farm crops, ornamental plantings, and habitat. Even home gardeners have to take significant steps to prevent deer from eating their crops, and Maine farmers often shoot dozens of deer a year in their fields to protect strawberries and other crops that deer find appetizing.
My wife and I tried many remedies over the years before investing in electric fence to protect our home garden. It’s not perfect, but does a better job than anything else we tried and it also deters other critters including woodchucks. But the lead solution – delivered via shotgun or rifle – is the only permanent answer when deer are a menace.
Until we figure out a way to let the lead fly in those areas where hunting or the discharge of firearms are prohibited, deer problems won’t be solved – and Lyme disease will continue to spread.