The commonly accepted view of deer as friendly, graceful and peaceful animals is being challenged this week. The reason: Lyme disease.
In an effort to control the risk of Lyme disease — the tick-borne infectious agent that is increasingly being transmitted by Connecticut’s deer population — Georgina Scholl, research chair of the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, is lobbying the state to ease regulations on deer hunting. Scholl’s proposal, which was presented to Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week, urges legislators to lengthen the hunting season beyond mid-September, to the end of December, and to increase bag sizes — the number of deer that hunters can shoot in a season.
Lyme disease — which is carried by the common deer tick, Borrelia burgdorferi, and the black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis — can progress quickly from an irritating rash to a disabling condition that is difficult to treat. After initially being misdiagnosed as juvenile arthritis, the disease was identified in 1975 in Lyme and South Lyme, Conn., and quickly spread to other parts of the world.
Scholl said several deer-eradication programs in Connecticut have been effective in reducing the number of local Lyme disease cases in the past.
In communities such as Mumford Cove, Conn., reported cases of Lyme disease fell drastically, from 30 to three over a six-year period, after a large culling program — selected killing of surplus animal populations — reduced the deer community from 101.3 per square mile to just 10.5, Scholl said.
Howard Kilpatrick, a deer biologist who works for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said in a press release that the Mumford Cove deer-eradication program has resulted in a reduction in the local tick population as well as in the risk of contracting Lyme disease.
Now, Scholl is using Mumford Cove’s success as a model as he advocates for a longer hunting season in southern Connecticut.
But despite the seemingly direct correlation Scholl draws between the deer population and the prevalence of Lyme disease in Mumford Cove, some scientists said they are not convinced that increased deer hunting is the best method of combating the disease.
They said the result at Mumford Cove does not establish a definite correlation between hunting and Lyme disease. Targeting the source of the disease — the ticks — rather than the carriers is the only way to truly decrease the risk of contracting Lyme disease, the scientists said.
“I think that only elimination or near elimination will have an effect on the population of ticks, something not likely to happen, and certainly not by increasing the hunting season,” Epidemiology and Public Health professor Eugene Shapiro said in an e-mail.
Louis Magnarelli, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, said he agrees that a longer hunting season would not actually yield results in practice, since deer populations would need to be drastically reduced before the state would begin to see a decrease in incidences of Lyme disease.
He also argued that it is not only deer that spread the disease, but also white-footed mice and other rodents, so targeting the deer population exclusively would not eliminate the disease.
“Current research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and other institutions is directed at reducing ticks in localized settings by other means, such as biological and chemical control methods and habitat modification,” he said.
Kirby Stafford, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station, said using pesticides on deer to kill off the ticks is the most logical and effective means of targeting the disease.
While some hunting enthusiasts interviewed said they are excited about Scholl’s proposed hunting season, they said they are not entirely convinced that it would work in practice.
Thomas Remington, co-author of ‘The Legend of Grey Ghost and Other Tales from the Maine Woods’ and various New England hunting blogs, said Scholl is overestimating the impact hunting will have on the overwhelming deer population in Connecticut.
“That’s the reduction of herd size to eight deer per square mile,” Remington said.
Since 1992, Connecticut has been the state with the largest number of reported cases of Lyme disease, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health.