Lyme disease has reached epidemic proportions in America, especially in the East. An estimated >30,000 cases of Lyme disease will be diagnosed and reported in the U.Sl this year and many more cases will go undiagnosed or unreported. This issue is close to my heart because the daughter of a good friend continues her battle to survive with her case of advanced Lyme disease. Humans are infected when bitten by infected Ixodes ticks, deer ticks in the east and northern US, and black-legged ticks in the western US. The life cycle of the east coast deer tick and the west coast Black-legged tick, the primary vectors carrying the spirochete Borelia burgdorferi that causes Lyme disease primarily cycles between small rodents like mice and squirrels and large mammals, primarily deer. Humans are essentially an accidental host for the spirochete. The spread of Lyme disease is likely in significant part due to the dramatic increase in deer populations in areas where human populations have provided ideal deer habitat (edges with vegetation for food and adjacent wooded areas for cover) and markedly reduced natural predation by wolves and other large mammals. Bambi feeding on your garden may be frowned upon, but the wolves who historically kept deer herds in a natural balance have been extirpated from these same areas. It’s little wonder that the ticks that spread Lyme disease also thrive in this area to an extent unheard of in decades past.
While visiting my Dad in Maine for the past week the local news programs, newspapers, and lots of web sites perseverate on how to avoid Lyme disease. The primary recommendations include daily “tick checks”, keeping your lawn grass cut short and clearing your yard of tick hiding places like brush piles, leaves, and rock piles/walls, and keeping pets tick free and use of insecticides on lawns and yards. No one seems to be discussing what seems to me to be an obvious public health approach to this serious health concern. There are just too many deer living in close proximity to towns and cities in much of the eastern and northern U.S.
In Southern New England white-tailed deer populations are out of control. Although at about the turn of the 19th century and the early 20th century white-tailed deer had been nearly hunted out of existence, but with the institution of hunting seasons, and later annual “bag limits” this situation has more than reversed itself. Deer populations in some areas are at or above the “carrying capacity” of the land, and are so common on some southern Maine coastal islands as to be a menace to residents both because of increased populations of deer ticks, and hence Lyme disease, but also in deer-vehicular accidents and damage to crops and landscaping.
It seems that a better public policy of hunting permits to reduce deep populations in many areas would be an efficient, popular and safer way to reduce Lyme disease burden than asking everyone to mow their lawns short, remove habitiat for ticks (the same habitat used by many bird and other small animals), and spread insecticides on their properties. The white-tailed deer has been a beneficiary of the mixed edge habitats and wooded areas for cover and the lack of natural non-human predators brought about by the gentrification of much of the east coast. Although Maine residents and especially hunters desire a healthy white-tailed deer population keeping this population much lower in more populated areas seems like a good public policy to me.
I’d be interested to hear from readers from Eastern states stand on this issue. Is having robust populations of deer near your homes worth the cost of human life and suffering from the Lyme disease epidemic? I’d say a loud no!