State deer population caught in Lyme disease cross hairs

Lauren Garrison

New Haven   Sunday, November 25, 2007 
Posted on Sat, Nov 24, 2007    
State deer population caught in Lyme disease cross hairs
By Lauren Garrison

Sixty-five years ago, Walt Disney’s “Bambi” put a soft spot in people’s hearts for deer.
So Dr. Georgina Scholl may not find instant support when she asks the state this week to consider reducing deer numbers in the state through increased hunting, euthanization, land management practices or other means.
Scholl — vice-chairwoman of the Connecticut Coalition to Eradicate Lyme Disease, an organization of 18 municipalities primarily in Fairfield County — believes reducing the deer population is critical to stopping the “unnecessary epidemic” of Lyme disease in the state.
The CCELD is an outgrowth of the Fairfield County  Deer Management Alliance, which was created in 2004.
Lyme disease is spread by black-legged ticks carried by deer and can cause a bull’s-eye rash and flu-like symptoms. If left untreated, it can cause arthritis and neurologic and heart problems. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were approximately 55,000 new physician-confirmed cases of Lyme disease this year in Connecticut alone.
Lyme disease also poses high costs to the state in medical bills and days infected individuals stay home from work. Residents must also pay for deer sprays, tick repellents and fencing, as well as vehicle damage by deer in accidents and higher car insurance premiums.
With this in mind, three Valley political leaders recently joined in the CCELD’s statewide initiative by signing their names on a letter urging Gov. M. Jodi Rell to reduce deer populations.
“If (the deer) become that much of a nuisance, then why not allow hunters to be involved in their sport,” said Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti. “That’s been going on for hundreds of years in this country, so I see that as a viable option.”
State law permits bowhunting of deer from mid-September to the end of December, with different chunks of time specified for state land, state land bowhunting-only areas and private land. Shotgun hunting is allowed between mid-November and early December and requires a special lottery permit. Shotgun or rifle hunting on private lands is allowed between Nov. 14 and Dec. 4, or from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 for landowners. Finally, muzzleloader hunting is permitted on state and private land from Dec. 5 to 18. For all types of hunting, the state mandates strict “bag limits,” between one and four deer.
Robert Crook, a lobbyist and spokesman for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said he agreed with the CCELD’s assertion that there’s a “direct correlation between the amount of Lyme disease and the number of deer” and said he would support relaxing restrictions on hunting to address the issue.
“Right now there is not proper management of deer in at least two zones in the state, mostly along the shoreline,” he said. “The only way to take care of that is to allow more hunters in the field or the same amount of hunters more time. We’re pushing for Sunday hunting,” which is currently banned.
Crook noted that a bill on the matter died in the General Public Health Committee. Crook said he expects another similar bill to be brought this year or next to the Environment Committee, where he said, “I’m almost positive it will get out of there with a very, very high, if not, unanimous vote.”
Scholl did not focus on hunting or any other means of reducing deer numbers during her presentation to the Valley leaders last week, nor does she plan to make specific recommendations when she meets with the governor’s staff.
Her aim, she said, is to make the government aware of research on the relationship between deer, ticks and Lyme disease, much of which was conducted by Dr. Kirby Stafford, vice director and chief entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
“The Department of Public Health should analyze and filter all the information, all the science, and they should come out with a summary statement position that people can trust, so there’s a reliable source of information,” she said. “That way, people are not going to be vulnerable to persuasion by special interest groups.”
Killing more deer is not the answer, according to animal rights organizations.
“If you look at the scientific information that’s out there and the studies that have been done, they show that you cannot control Lyme disease by recreationally hunting deer,” said Laura Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s been tried and it doesn’t work unless you virtually eradicate the deer, which is just not possible, practical or desirable.”
Deer densities in Connecticut are currently between 27 and 50 per square mile, said Simon.
“This would be a war zone if you tried to knock back the deer population in Connecticut that low (to a level identified in research as necessary to eradicate the disease),” she said. “People will not tolerate that kind of gunfire in their backyards.”
Moreover, she said, killing off deer will not eradicate Lyme disease because ticks can simply find other hosts. In addition, deer are able to quickly regenerate their populations if they start to decline.
Simon suggested what she sees as a better alternative: installing “Four Poster” stations. The stations draw deer to them with food, then spray a pesticide on their necks.
“So basically, the deer help you by becoming a tick-killing machine,” she said.
She cited Stafford’s research, which she said showed that “this is a very effective way to kill a high proportion of ticks.”
Stafford supports Scholl’s claim that reducing the number of deer can help eradicate the disease.
“I think it’s clear there’s a strong link between deer abundance and the abundance of this tick (that carries the disease),” he said. “It is clear you have to get the deer down in that area of eight to 12 to 15 deer per square mile to see a noticeable impact on the disease.”
Stafford also agreed that the Four Poster method has been shown to be effective.
There are issues of concern with both approaches, however, Stafford noted.
With the deer-reduction approach, he said, “You have to have the community willing and proactive in initiating a program to actually reduce the deer population, and it has to be sustained.”
Barriers to achieving the reduction include “people’s conflicting attitudes in terms of managing wildlife,” local laws that may restrict hunter access, and “real or perceived safety or liability issues, with hunting” he said.
While the Four Posters are effective, they are expensive to run and maintain, said Stafford. Their use is also restricted by Environmental Protection Agency rules on pesticide use near homes or schools. Furthermore, he said, there is some concern that Four Posters, which encourage deer to concentrate their feeding in a few sites, could facilitate the spread of chronic wasting disease among deer. However, he noted, Chronic wasting disease is not yet a problem in Connecticut.