Deer Too Near for Hanover

Saturday, July 20, 2013
Hanover — The deer are everywhere, and apparently so are the ticks.

At least that’s what Hanover resident Priscilla Weismann, 81, told Town Manager Julia Griffin early last week. Weismann, who has lived in the same home on Reservoir Road since 1979, was diagnosed with Lyme disease in early July.

She gardens regularly and works in her yard daily, but she’s never before contracted the disease. It could be luck, she reckons, that in all her years outside she’s never been bitten by a deer tick.

But since at least eight others in her neighborhood, including three children, have been diagnosed with Lyme disease so far this summer, Weismann thinks it could be more than happenstance.

Lyme is transmitted through the black legged tick, commonly known as the deer tick, which contracts the disease from small rodents like the white-footed mouse and then latches onto larger animals, most commonly deer, during the nymph stage of their life cycle. For the past 30 years, the deer population in the Hanover area has steadily climbed, explaining, theoretically, why New Hampshire Department of Health reports show that cases of Lyme disease in Grafton County has jumped from two to more than 40 in the last 10 years. It has been long believed, said Dan Bergeron, a deer biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game, that instances of Lyme disease correlate directly with a region’s deer population.

“That was kind of initially the common thinking,” Bergeron said. “But there are some studies recently coming out that says that may be true to a point.”

It’s possible, Bergeron said, that the two could be related only loosely — if at all.

“What plays a bigger role than deer numbers is the amount of small mammals that actually carry that bacterium,” he said.

The debate surrounding why Lyme disease is on the rise, and how to prevent it, is contentious, said Jeffrey Parsonnet, an infectious diseases specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“I don’t think anyone can tell you why there’s more Lyme disease,” he said. “We are seeing a huge amount of Lyme disease I have to say... The biggest problem that we have out there is not that there’s a lot of Lyme, but these peripheral issues that surround the disease.”

A report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal in April credits the upswing in part to global warming and another from researchers in New York warns against fragmentation of forests in the Northeast, which reduces the number of predators that prey on the small mammals, like white-footed mice, which are infected with the bacteria that ticks pick up and then pass to humans through a bite.

A third from the The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station discusses extensively the benefits of deer management as it correlates with tick management.

Either way, like Hanover, towns and cities in New Hampshire — the state with the third highest incidence of Lyme disease in 2012 — are determining how to manage their deer populations and educate residents about the disease.

Deer in Hanover

Hanover town officials are fielding an above average number of deer-related phone complaints from Hanover residents, Town Manager Julia Griffin said.

“This summer, for whatever reason, we just have a lot of these critters in town and they’re eating folks out of house and home,” Griffin said.

Usually she’ll take two or three calls each summer from residents complaining about menacing deer in residential areas. Just in the past month, Griffin has fielded more than a dozen.

“They’re bigger, bolder and hungrier. Anything that isn’t nailed down, they’re eating,” Griffin said of the deer in Hanover. “They are so comfortable around people that they’re hard to move.”

Priscilla Weismann, the woman with Lyme disease, can attest firsthand to the friendliness.

“I’d say that I live in a deer pock,” she said. “Someone in the neighborhood sees them every single day and every single night.”

Just the other night, the 81-year-old went to lock her front door before bed and made eye contact with a deer in her front lawn. She tried to shoo it off, but the deer didn’t budge until she rapped on the window. The animals have nibbled at her plants and wandered right up to her home.

The neighbors put a fence around the community garden across the street to keep their produce safe from hungry deer.

But Weismann’s concern lies less with the plants and more with kids in the area. There’s a daycare nearby and the Ray School down the road.

“I’m too old to get the complications,” Weismann said, referring to the cardiac and arthiritic symptoms that can development if Lyme disease is left untreated in the longterm. “But I’m concerned about the children.”

She wonders what measures the town will take and questions the preventative education efforts of local health personnel. “When we have a cold, they give us masks,” she said. “But they don’t warn us about Lyme disease.”

Pending Solutions

So far this year, there have been only five confirmed cases of Lyme disease between Grafton and Sullivan counties and 90 statewide, said Beth Daly, chief of infectious disease surveillance with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. There’s a lag time between when the cases are diagnosed and when they are officially confirmed by the state due to paperwork from the Center for Disease Control. At this point in the summer, it’s difficult to determine whether or not Lyme disease is climbing.

“Thats why we release our data once a year,” she said.

In 2002, there were two reported cases of Lyme disease in Grafton County, according to the health department’s website. In 2012, there were 43.

“We do know that that’s an area of emerging concern, so we definitely want to get that prevention information out there,” Daly said.

Lyme disease is much more prevalent in the southest east corner of the state, but mild winters the past few years could explain why there’s more Lyme disease toward the west, Bergeron, the deer biologist, said.

It could also explain why the Hanover area is over populated with deer, he said. New Hampshire Fish and Game uses a series of calculations to estimate over- and under-population of wildlife species in designated regions throughout the state.

Ultimately, it’s extrapolated from the number of bucks killed during any given hunting season. They set an objective, Bergeron said, that helps them gauge the population. In 2012, the “kill objective” was 340, which means if hunters killed that many deer, then the population would be in balance. However, hunters killed 435 deer, 17 percent above the objective.

This indicated, Bergeron said, that there were too many deer available to hunters, and therefore too many deer in the population.

“To an extent if you reduce deer numbers you could reduce tick numbers,” Bergeron said, however they don’t track the population just to curb Lyme disease. They analyze what the environment can withstand and proceed from there.

To cull the herds, Bergeron said Fish and Game will add additional “either sex” hunting days, meaning hunters can kill does in addition to bucks.

Griffin said the town will consult with Fish and Game about these issues, both in an attempt to keep wild deer out of residential areas, but also to reduce the risk for Lyme disease.

The deer are most prevalent in the neighborhoods that butt up against Balch Hill, Oak Hill and Velvet Rocks, Griffin said. She mentioned that although those areas are currently posted as “no hunting,” they could open them for hunting to cull the deer population.

That, of course, could cause controversy between hunters and hikers, so the town will have to engage in a dialogue with Dartmouth College, the Appalacian Trail Conservancy and the Hunting Conservancy before any decisions are made.

There’s other preventative measures, too, like spraying for ticks with pesticides, but Daly said that isn’t promoted by the health department, mostly because officials have yet to determine whether it’s effective. There once was a vaccine, but Parsonnet from DHMC said that too, wasn’t effective.

Keeping yards landscaped, performing regular body checks for ticks and tick bites and wearing repellent is the best Lyme disease prevention, they all agreed.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@vnews.com or 603-727-3234.

Priscilla Weismann, 81, is a Hanover resident who was recently diagnosed with Lyme disease, the first time she has been diagnosed with the disease. Behind Weismann are shrubs deer have been eating in her front yard. Valley News— Jennifer Hauck