All About Deer, Ticks, and Disease

They came to the forum, they listened, but they couldn’t ask questions

An informational forum on deer hosted by the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton last Thursday largely focused on ticks and the pathogens they carry, though one presenter emphasized the impact of deer on forests and what he said was their destruction of other animals’ habitat.

Critics of the village’s controversial 2015 sterilization effort, many of them in attendance, left the event complaining that a promised question-and-answer session had been called off.

The forum roughly coincided with the East Hampton Village Board’s distribution of a questionnaire to residents to gauge concern with respect to tick-borne illnesses as well as deer-vehicle collisions, the impact of deer on agricultural and residential lands, and the proliferation of fencing to keep deer off residential properties. It also solicited opinion on the sterilization effort and alternatives, including a cull.

Scott Campbell of the Suffolk County Health Department’s Arthropod-Borne Disease Program delivered an overview of the tick species on the South Fork and the pathogens they carry. The black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick, can carry the pathogens that cause Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and the Powassan virus.

The white-footed mouse is the primary reservoir for those pathogens, Dr. Campbell said, and deer ticks that feed on them can then reinfect other mice or bite and infect humans. Though nymphal ticks have a lower infection rate than adults, they transmit most of the pathogens, he said. Adult-stage ticks have a higher infection rate, “but because they’re larger, we tend to find them more frequently when we’re checking ourselves.”

Adult ticks also feed on larger mammals, especially deer. “Deer are very good at travel, so they have a tendency to have wide ranges,” he said.

Ticks quest, Dr. Campbell said. “They don’t fall from trees, they don’t catapult. All they do is sit on vegetation and wait for hosts to come by,” or, sensing carbon dioxide emitted by an animal, “they will move toward a host.”

Deer ticks remain active during the winter, he said, provided the temperature is around 40 degrees or above. “You can come in contact with the deer tick during winter,” he said.

Dr. Campbell recommended long-sleeve shirts and pants, and tucking shirts into pants and pants into socks. Light-colored clothing allows ticks to be seen more easily. One can avoid picking up ticks from grass and brush by walking in the center of footpaths, and not sitting directly on the ground. Outdoor play areas should be well maintained. Ticks will not die in a washing machine, he said, but a dryer will kill them. He also suggested using a tick repellent.

Anna-Marie Wellins of Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center focused her talk on Lyme disease and other illnesses caused by tick-borne pathogens. There are 300,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States annually, she said. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of adult ticks are infected. For every 10 cases of Lyme, she said, there is one case of anaplasmosis or babesiosis, an illness akin to malaria.

“We’re in an endemic area,” Dr. Wellins said, “so just being in this room today, we’re at risk because we have to walk out of this room and get to our car . . . and we’re going to pass by habitat with grass or leaf litter or overgrown grass.”

Thomas Rawinski of the federal Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service said he was at the forum as an advocate for healthy, sustainable forests. Mr. Rawinski quoted Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” a 1962 book documenting the effects of the use of pesticides, including DDT, on the environment, who said that mankind, insistent on simplifying the variety nature introduced to the landscape, “undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”

The unchecked growth of the deer population has resulted in a “scentless spring,” he said, characterized by “very few flowers, very few wonderful fragrances that we enjoyed as children.” It’s “a crisis I think is so much larger than DDT affecting certain birds,” he said.

Deer-damaged forests, he said, “have little ability to withstand disturbance and absorb change,” and display “diminished biotic resistance,” or the ability to keep invasive species at bay. Flowering plants and ground-nesting birds that need cover are disappearing from forests, he said. “The sun may be setting on East End forests.”

At the start, those at the gathering had been invited to submit written questions for the question-and-answer session to follow the presentation. “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Kathy Cunningham, the Village Preservation Society’s executive director. “We’re out of time.”