After about nine months gestating a report on alternatives to help control the tick population on the North Fork, Southold’s Tick Working Group has come to the same conclusion as the town board had before them: education and culling of the North Fork’s growing deer herd are the best solutions to the problem.
Members of the group presented the report to the Southold Town Board at a work session Tuesday morning.
“All of us were highly motivated to come up with a viable solution,” said the committee’s chairman, Dr. John Rasweiler. “All of us have had tick-borne diseases, and in four cases they were serious.”
Committee member James Duggan said that he’d been to a meeting in East Marion where 40 percent of the people in the room had at some point been diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
But the group found that many frequently discussed methods of controlling ticks are not cost-effective, are currently illegal, or would do more harm to the environment than good.
The group found that the four-poster program, piloted on Shelter Island, in which deer are rolled with insecticides in a feeding station, could lead to ticks becoming resistant to the insecticide permethrin, and also use an astronomical amount of corn, which could lead to a rat problem.
“Rats are, under the best of circumstances, a real problem to control and eliminate,” said Dr. Rasweiler.
Dr. Rasweiler, who received his doctorate in reproductive physiology, said that sterilizing deer is also a difficult prospect. He said it would cost at least $500 to catch and sterilize each deer, and the same deer would have to be caught again in two years for a booster shot.
He added that a controversial experimental sterilization program in East Hampton Village can’t be replicated, because catching and sterilizing deer is illegal outside of the confines of that experimental program.
Dr. Rasweiler said that hunters are currently killing about 15 percent of the deer each year throughout Suffolk County, but in order to keep the herd from expanding, they would need to kill 35 to 40 percent of the does and to reduce the herd they would need to harvest 60 to 65 percent of the does.
Dr. Rasweiler said that spraying yards with acaricides is a necessary tool to prevent tick-borne diseases, but cautioned that it shouldn’t be overused because both ticks and mosquitos, who also feed on deer, could develop resistance.
Laura Klahre, who also serves on the tick committee, said acaricides also kill beneficial insects and pollinators of food crops, ranging from ground-nesting bees to monarch caterpillars.
“It’s not like spraying a rose bush in your garden once a season when it’s infested with pests,” said Dr. Rasweiler. “It would need to be applied on a monthly basis ad infinitum. We have to be very concerned about the development of resistance.”
He pointed out that West Nile, Chikungunya and Zika viruses are all spread by mosquitos, and Vector Control needs to be able to use an insecticide that mosquitoes haven’t developed a resistance to in order to protect public health.
He added that his neighbor had contracted ehrlichiosis and spent three weeks in intensive care even though he always sprayed his yard for ticks.
“He’d done everything conceivable to protect himself, and he still got the disease,” said Dr. Rasweiler.
Members of the committee suggested the town mail a pamphlet explaining tick borne diseases to everyone in Southold, explaining that early identification and treatment is crucial to preventing the worst symptoms of tick-borne diseases.
Dr. Rasweiler added that deer, which are not native to Long Island, are destroying woodland habitats and disturbing the habits of ground-nesting birds. He added that ticks have become so prevalent here that fawns have developed periocular tick infestations around their eyes, which cause them to go blind and die because they can’t see food.
“We’re seeing increased disease and parasitism. We’re not doing any favor for the deer by allowing the population to expand. We have a health crisis and an environmental crisis. We have to do something about it,” he said. “We need to change the law and change the regulations.”
“We were really bummed out that there’s not an easy answer that you can just get to, but this report shows there clearly is a public health problem and it is connected to deer,” said Ms. Klahre. “We looked at the concept of a bounty. Bounties work. We’ve seen it in the past with other animal operations.”
Town Councilman Bill Ruland agreed.
“When you have human life at peril, that’s more than a problem. If you’re finding a fawn died from the result of disease, that’s certainly not the way the balance of nature is supposed to work,” he said. “It really is a crisis. The opposite of deer fence can hold true, if you open the gate and let them in. But if you shut it (and kill the deer) you’re going to jail. Some people say that’s barbaric, but any of you suffering from these diseases is also barbaric.”
“This town board in no way interfered, you had a blank slate, and at the end of the day you arrived at the same conclusion we came to: focus on deer,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell.
Dr. Rasweiler will give a talk sponsored by North Fork Audubon titled “Our Deer Over-Population Problem: Consequences for the Environment, Biodiversity and Public Health,” this Friday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Peconic Recreation Center on Peconic Lane in Peconic. More information is online here.