Ticks and Island ecology


To the Editor:

In response to all the dialogue about reducing or eliminating the deer herd in an effort to eliminate Lyme disease, in my opinion we should take a different approach.

Let’s start by calling the ticks skunk or raccoon ticks. When I was growing up on the South Road in Chilmark, I could walk 300 yards across a field and pick 125 dog ticks from the legs of my dungarees. Having picked up a large number of deer ticks while hunting for five hours in a heavily infested area a few years ago, it was nothing compared with the tick population of the past. Back then those ticks also presented health problems; babesiosis, tularemia, etc. We had deer in those days, too, but not nearly as many. The whitetails arrived by water in the early 1900s, and fallow deer were released in 1937 or ’38. As an example, only 40-some deer were checked in on the Island during our first deer hunting season in 1949.

The primary carriers of ticks in those days were the cottontail rabbits. There were so many that the daily bag limit was five per person during the season, which ran into February. It was not uncommon for a group of six to eight hunters with hounds to get their limit of 30 to 40 rabbits. In those days it was also common to see two, three, or even four coveys of quail cross the highways in Chilmark. We also had a fair number of pheasants, which started our fall hunting season.

In the 1950s and ’60s skunks and then raccoons were illegally brought to the Island. Since that time we have lost our quail, pheasant, and for the most part, rabbits, which all nest above ground. Many have tried to reintroduce quail and pheasant without success.

Today, as I write this, my tally for this year is 47 skunks and four raccoons, all live-trapped and disposed of. Over 40 of that total were caught within 10 feet of my front door. We can, with a concerted effort by a lot of individuals, dramatically reduce the skunk and raccoon populations. Let’s start with these, move on to mice, and last the deer.

The Island has many excellent, capable deer hunters. However, you will not make a dent in the herd by only allowing a few bow hunters into the Island’s closed properties and restricted areas. You need groups of hunters who are willing to go into the thickest briar patches, often interwoven with grape vines, and the difficult swamps, to move the deer out. And these hunters must have access to all areas where the deer bed down.

I recently heard that a primary ingredient in Repel, an anti-tick spray with which I have been spraying my hunting clothes for several years, actually kills the ticks. If that’s the case, perhaps that is the reason we see far fewer ‘deer ticks’ in the areas we are allowed to hunt during deer season.

David Tilton