We finally beat the ticks

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We walk the Vineyard with delight, Then check ourselves for ticks all night. — Dan Waters/Indian Hill Press

The Island finally succeeds in reducing the overabundance of deer and ticks and puts an end to the epidemic of tick-borne diseases.

Significantly reducing the number of lone star and deer ticks did not ‘save’ the Vineyard, but it certainly made the Island a safer and more enjoyable place to live, especially for those who like to spend time outdoors. By the start of the 21st century it was common knowledge that Martha’s Vineyard had a serious problem with ticks and tick-borne illnesses. If you had not had Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness, you certainly had a family member or friend who had. However, it was not until 2011 that the Island Boards of Health launched the first organized efforts to deal with the issue. Even so, it was not until 2020 that the Island community came together and began to commit the resources required to finally address the issue of tick-borne diseases. 

Perhaps it was the continued spread and increase in numbers of lone star ticks and the diseases they carried, including spotted fever and tularemia. Perhaps it was the Island-wide dearth of acorns in 2019. Coming on the heels of several mast years of abundant acorns that had inflated the Island deer population, the lack of food in the winter of 2019- 2020 forced Islanders to face the reality of the suffering and death resulting when the population of a wild animal overwhelms its food supply.

Whatever the reason, 2020 marked a turning point. Property owners realized that absent any predators on the Island, hunting was the only way to control the deer population and prevent it from outstripping available food. In addition, a combination of private donations and spending approved at town meeting provided funding to hire a wildlife biologist with particular expertise in deer biology and ecology to head up the effort to address the overabundance of deer and the plague of lone star and deer ticks that resulted.

The wildlife biologist conducted surveys to better quantify the number of deer on the Island and the areas with the highest densities of deer. This baseline, combined with the data collected by the Tick Program on the location and numbers of ticks Island-wide made it possible to assess the effectiveness of deer reduction and other efforts to reduce ticks. The wildlife biologist also took the lead in researching the role of turkeys, chipmunks, raccoons, and other introduced animals in the maintenance and spread of lone star and deer ticks.

With the increased willingness of private property owners to allow bow and arrow hunting on their land and incentives for hunters to take more female deer, the wildlife biologist and tick program staff were able to document the reduction in deer and the reduction in lone star and deer ticks. Soon the Massachusetts Department of Public Health statistics showed what was obvious to those on the Island. The incidence of tick-borne illnesses had dropped dramatically and soon it was rare to hear of new cases.

Looking back from the year 2030, it is hard to believe that we suffered the scourge of tick-borne illnesses for 50 years before we figured out how to solve the problem and then committed to providing the resources necessary to solve the problem.

Dick Johnson is the Dukes County Tick Program biologist.