To the Editor:
What do Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have in common? Well, among other things, we tend to have the highest Lyme disease rates in Massachusetts.
Another distinction our two fair islands share is a complete lack of red foxes — the Vineyard’s killed off in the 1950s I’m told — making us the only two places in the commonwealth completely lacking in these animals.
Which is of particular interest because, where red foxes thrive, Lyme disease has been shown to be rare. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Deer, Predators and the Emergence of Lyme Disease.”)
The reason for this, as it turns out, is quite simple: Red foxes are a key predator of rodents, and it is the white-footed mouse which is the critical host infecting our ticks with the Lyme disease bacterium in the first place.
Which is why I think that we here on the Vineyard, at least, should seriously consider conducting a pilot program using sterile, radio-monitored red foxes as temporary biological controls to bring our overabundant, infectious-disease-carrying rodent populations back into ecological balance.
Needless to say, steps would have to be taken to ensure that none of our Island special-status species were negatively impacted — for example, foxes being deployed in sensitive areas only in the offseason — or not at all.
Additionally, such a program could conceivably produce significant reductions in babesiosis (Nantucket fever), tularemia (rabbit fever), and other small mammal–critical host, tick-borne diseases.