REGION — If you’ve spoken to anyone in Maine who has a backyard, who gardens, who hikes, who walks through the grass, who breathes, you’ve likely heard the complaint that tick season is worse this year. Concerns that these pestering parasitic arachnid species are taking over the great outdoors can be found in social media groups for Maine foragers and gardeners, small-talk among coworkers, and in the form of memes on social media.

All of the noise begs the question: has tick season always been this bad? Or is tick season getting worse. To get to the bottom of it, the Livermore Falls Advertiser reached out to experts at the Maine Center for Disease Control, the Tick Lab, and the Maine Forest Tick Survey to understand why this spring feels like an ongoing war against ticks and bull’s-eyes and Lyme, oh my!

To protect yourself, it’s important to understand what kinds of ticks there are, what months they surge and what dangers they present. The most common tick species found in Maine are the Blacklegged Tick or Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis), the American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis), and the Woodchuck Tick (Ixodes cookei), according to the Maine Tick Lab.

The Tick Lab is a University of Maine Cooperative Extension lab that accepts tick submissions from Maine to test for diseases and collect data. In the last three years, 160 ticks from Androscoggin County have been sent to the Tick Lab. Of those 160, 36% carried the bacteria that transmits Lyme. Fifty-eight have been sent from Franklin County.

Normally, dog tick season is from late May and early June until July while deer ticks come in cycles throughout the warmer months. The deer ticks, which transmit bad pathogens like Lyme disease, peak as nymphs, the size of a poppy seed in the spring and summer and as adults, the size of a sesame seed in the fall.

Right now, Maine is seeing “high dog tick activity” because of a “mild winter” and an “early spring,” according to Griffin Dill, manager of the Tick Lab.

“We had a relatively mild winter so certainly cold temperatures weren’t going to impact their population size from the winter we had…the spring has been relatively warm and dry which is conducive to dog tick activity. That’s really allowed them to be active earlier and in higher numbers,” Dill said.

Megan Porter, Public Health Educator at the CDC specializing in tick-borne diseases, echoed that theory.

“All of those [factors] came together to start this tick season a little bit earlier than normal,” Porter said.

The “silver lining” about this unusually high level of activity is that the brown-and-white dog ticks do not “transmit the diseases we have in Maine,” according to Porter.

While deer tick season is fairly average this year, deer tick populations and Lyme cases in humans are “steadily increasing” over time across Maine, according to Dill.

“Now we’ve counted deer ticks from every county in Maine, so really no place is safe,” Porter said. Though cases used to be concentrated in the Midcoast-Maine area, now “you can’t assume that there are no ticks in your area.”

Porter said the population is growing because of the returning white-tailed deer population, which is the deer tick’s primary host. The Press Herald reports that white-tailed deer and any-tail deer populations in Maine have increased significantly over the years and likely range from 280,000 to 300,000 this year.

The Maine Forest Tick Survey has also tracked trends among tick populations and habitations. Elissa Ballman, the project’s citizen science coordinator, said more ticks were found on Maine properties in “fragmented areas” of a forest and with invasive plant species.

“Fragmented locations with little bits of forest around them [are] an ideal tick habitat because the mice and the deer can do really well in fragmented areas,” said Ballman. 

Unfortunately, Ballman is doubtful that the severity of tick season will ease up any time soon.

“We’re never going to get rid of them. They’re always going to be here,” she said.

Porter and Dill, for their parts suggest focusing on methods to protect yourself: wear the proper clothing (light colors that cover bare skin with shirts tucked into pants tucked into socks), wear skin and clothing repellents (deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus and permethrin), avoid prime tick habitats (ungroomed trails and areas with underbrush, vegetation, leaf litter and shade) and do regular, thorough tick checks on your body.

We certainly don’t want people to stop getting outside and doing all the things that the Maine outdoors has to offer,” Dill said.

“Maine is beautiful. We want to encourage people to go out and explore,” Porter echoed. “But we want people to stop before they go out and think about what they can be doing.”

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