Cull deer, stop Lyme, experts say

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PORTLAND (AP) – As Lyme disease makes its way up the Maine coast and to inland sections of the state, a group of biologists and medical experts is promoting expanded deer hunts as a way to curb the infection carried by ticks that feed off deer.

“The more deer you have, the more reproductive potential for ticks,” said Charles Lubelczyk, a field biologist for the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s Vector-borne Disease Laboratory. “If you can get deer down to a low-enough level, you might see the ticks drop in a little while.”

Maine recorded 338 cases of Lyme disease last year, a 37 pecent increase from the 247 cases in 2005, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1,000 Mainers now have the disease, which can cause arthritis, neurological problems and potentially fatal brain inflammation.

The mild winter that allowed more ticks to survive gave rise to the Vector-Borne Disease Working Group Deer Subcommittee, whose members are seeking to educate Mainers about the public health risk posed by overabundant deer.

Regulated deer hunts are the most cost-effective way of winnowing the deer population, said Vasco Carter, the group’s chairman and a biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Deer kills have already taken place in some areas, including the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Parts of the reserve which once had up to 100 deer per square miles have seen the numbers drop to 80 per square mile during the past six years, said Paul Dest, manager of hte reserve.

“We would love for it to go down to 20,” Dest said. “But it’s not as if you get to 20 and say we’re done. You have to have regular hunting and harvesting of deer to keep a deer population in check.”

Some efforts to thin deer herds through controlled hunts have triggered public protests. Despite an outbreak of Lyme disease on Monhegan Island a decade ago, residents tried to block a state-sanctioned deer kill by a sharpshooter. A 1990 bowhunt in Cape Elizabeth that targeted bucks and does prompted a candlelight vigil for the animals.

Estimates of Maine’s deer population have remained at around 219,000 in the winter and 258,000 during the fawning season in summer, according to deer biologist Lee Kantor of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who says the jury is out as to whether the spread of Lyme disease can be pinned entirely on the deer population.

“Is there a lower deer density that could actually make a difference in how Lyme disease is actually transmitted?” Kantor asked. “It’s a complex question that I don’t think can be answered at this point.”

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