Fox are very important controlling Lyme Disease

Small canine predator chows down on white footed mice-

People have sometimes blamed white-tailed deer as a factor spreading this growing menace, but a new study “Deer, predators, and the emergence of Lyme disease” hypothesizes through modeling and correlation analysis that the ecology of small mammal predators plays a key role in controlling or facilitating the spread of the disease.  Red fox emerge as a major agent of control because of their fondness of the white footed mouse as food.  This mouse is the most important mammalian vector of the disease.  Anything that reduces the number of red fox, which is in fact declining, indirectly makes the disease spread faster.  The study suggests that inasmuch as the spread of coyotes reduces fox populations, coyotes play an indirect role increasing the disease. Coyotes do eat the white footed mouse, but not to the same degree as fox.

The study is not definitive, but it will prove controversial. More research into the ecology of small predators is needed.

Abstract of the study. Deer, predators, and the emergence of Lyme disease. By  Taal Levia,  A. Marm Kilpatric, Marc Mangelc, and Christopher C. Wilmers



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  1. Dannie Kemp Avatar
    Dannie Kemp

    Would one deduce that the spread of Lyme Disease not being prevalent in the southeast is due to the absence of this mouse? We certainly have plenty of Fox and other types of rodents.

  2. Wolfy Avatar

    The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.
    Ehrlich, Paul

    1. JB Avatar

      Ehrlich was actually paraphrasing Leopold:

      “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

  3. Pronghorn Avatar

    Average pay-out for red fox “pelt” – 2012 = $39 (North American Fur Auctions)

    “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” ~Aldo Leopold

  4. km Avatar

    So we need to start trapping more coyotes? Seems like it would be tough to directly correlate areas with lower red fox densities to higher Lyme disease occurrences. I’d challenge someone to find a wildlife manager that believes hunting and trapping of red fox has caused a serious drop in their populations.

    1. Moose Avatar

      Wouldn’t discount benefits of foxes, but as Alan alludes to below..I’d say climate change is the primary driver in northward spread of ticks in the upper Midwest.

      1. Moose Avatar

        Km, I agree with your last statement (Mich UP in particular)

        1. km Avatar

          I agree completely with the warmer temps helping to spread ticks. I am originally from N Mn and believe that is a big factor in the moose population decline.

      2. Mike Avatar

        Yep. Climate change and logging. The white-footed mouse’s preferred habitat is ten acres or less of unnatural forest openings.

  5. Jon Way Avatar

    It will be interesting to see the scientific study. For one, I wonder what they purport happened for 1000s of years before Europeans colonized since red foxes didn’t live in much of the US. Did gray foxes keep deer mice down in #s. No one will ever know how they coexisted with eastern/red wolves.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Jon Way,

      It seems to me they hardly prove their case because it is based on correlation analysis used to confirm a model. A lot more work needs to be done.

      The important finding is, I think, that the mix of predators out there that eat rodents probably does have a big effect on the spread of this dangerous disease and others too.

      If there are few predators, the rodents will explode in numbers; and some kinds of predators eat the disease vectors more than others. In addition, when one kind of predator increases or decreases, the numbers of the various kinds of other predators changes too.

      1. elk275 Avatar

        I will guess that snakes eat many times the number of mice that foxes eat.

        1. Nancy Avatar

          Not if this little “lady” and her following continue to have their way with snakes Elk:

          Ran into Ms. Reed recently and I’d be willing to bet the rodent populations in her neighborhood are quite “robust” 🙂

          1. elk275 Avatar

            Nancy she will care if she gets bit. One of my friends in Bozeman has been an editor at Field and Stream for the last 30 years. He just wrote an column called “The high cost of snake bite in Montana” which will be published in the future. If one needs anti venom the doctor will use 10 to 12 doses. It cost the hospital $2550 a dose. One hospital in Montana charges $8000 a dose , one hospital in Billings charges cost (that is nice of them). Depending upon the hospital snake bite cost between $40,000 to $100,000.

      2. Jon Way Avatar

        Good points Ralph. I think there are many factors at play and I highly doubt that eastern coyotes/coywolves are indirectly causing deer ticks (and Lyme Disease) to increase b.c of lack of predation on mice. I am sure they eat mice and a whole host of animals (hawks, owls) eat them too.

        As others elude to here, usually the bigger the predator (fox to coyote to wolf) the bigger more positive effect that the animal has on the ecosystem; not the reverse.

      3. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        The last time I was in Yellowstone, I saw a red fox in Icebox Canyon past Slough Creek (Lamar Valley). I never saw one in the 10 years when I lived in the park (1965-1975). Perhaps the effect of wolves reining in coyotes has also opened up more of a niche for foxes?

        1. elk275 Avatar


          Dr. Bob Crabtree has studied foxes in the Beartooths Mountains for a number of years, along with his Yellowstone coyote research. He thought that there were distinct isolated populations of high altitude red foxes. A friend of mind years ago saw several red foxes above timberline on the Stillwater Plateau sheep hunting.

          1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
            SEAK Mossback

            Elk –
            Thanks, very interesting. It sounds like they were probably around at higher elevations, I just never saw one. I did meet Bob Crabtree a few years ago in a parking lot near Soda Butte Creek, where the Druid wolf pack was denned right behind us. The conversation never got to foxes, but he pointed out an active coyote den right across the creek and I expressed surprise, given the proximity and what I had read about the recent impact of the wolves on coyotes in the park. He said something to the effect “Ain’t nothing going to wipe out coyotes.”

  6. Alan Gregory Avatar

    I live in northern Vermont. Not too many years ago, ticks were absent from wild lands at this latitude. Not any more. The failure of Lake Champlain to freeze over this past winter is one piece of the evidence.

  7. Mike Avatar

    predator hunters and trappers are causing massive, massive damage to our ecosystem.

    This is not a surprising study.

  8. Nancy Avatar

    There has been a noticeable increase in red foxes in my area over the past few years although my neighbor, a rancher, mentioned the other day that they’d just killed a fox because it got 2 of the their chickens.

    Their chickens run loose (as do their cattle on public lands) and predators unfortunately, pay the price for their lack of responsibility.

    And no, not singling out ranchers (although they are one of the major reasons so many predators have their lives cut short, especially around here) Had another neighbor a few years back (not a rancher) that would shoot any fox she caught crossing her property because she was convinced a fox had killed one of her “outside” cats.

    1. mikarooni Avatar

      I once had the chance to listen to Michael Soulé, a prominent biologist then teaching at UC San Diego. He talked about how San Diego is actually built on top of a series of finger-like “mesas” projecting above the ocean and separated by wooded, steep-sided, and relatively undeveloped canyons. Some of these canyons, which are all very close to the urban infrastructure above them on the tops of the mesas, still contained their full complement of native songbirds, while the next canyon over would still be fully wooded, but be completely silent and devoid of birds. Contrary to what you might think at first, he found that each canyon that still contained songbirds also contained an active pack of coyotes and each canyon that was missing its birds was also missing its coyotes. He gave this paradox to his grad students to solve and, after much study, they reported that, in each canyon that had lost its songbirds, there were feral cats. However, in each canyon that retained its songbirds, it was because the coyotes hunted the feral cats, but had no time to waste chasing anything as small as a songbird. In effect, the coyotes were indirectly and unintentionally protecting the songbirds.

      1. DLB Avatar

        I hate domestic cats. I’ve tried to like them, but it’s too tall an order. In my opinion, cats were never meant to be domesticated.

  9. Alexander Davis Avatar
    Alexander Davis

    The CDC yearly maps document the gradual spread of Lyme disease. Levi says that although there are abundant deer in Western NY, Lyme incidence is low. However this is because it hasn’t reached there yet. It’s not because deer are not an important factor. Deer are the primary host of the adult egg-laying deer ticks which require a blood meal from a large mammal. Each adult tick can lay 3000 eggs which hatch into larvae and then nymphs, hosted by small mammals like mice. Going after the deer breaks this cycle. In Bridgeport CT, lowering the deer population 74% resulted in a 92% decrease in nymphal deer ticks. In Groton CT the deer population was reduced from 77 per square mile to 10 per square mile, and the Lyme Disease incidence decreased by 83%.. As explained in this information, “Simply reducing deer numbers to natural levels, without any other actions of any kind taken, can eradicate Lyme Disease.” :

  10. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Slightly of topic, but MN’s other ubiquitous blood sucker, the mosquito is alive and well. After a wet couple of weeks followed by heat, the tiny vampires have appeared in biblical proportions. Now after two days of Noahian rains, it all but guarantees a full Summer of these omnipresent arthropods. Heck, but this morning I didn’t even need breakfast as one oils just inhale them.

    Back on topic, the recent rains, I wonder, whether the tick crop will become more “Robust”!

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Interesting Immer. I and a few others around (gratefully) have noticed a lack of mosquitos so far this year even with irrigation in the local hayfields going full blast the last couple of weeks.

      Out watering my veggie gardens this afternoon and still didn’t see any “ubiquitous blood suckers” BUT I was over in the Big Hole this morning and heard from a local that the UBS’s” finally showed up there, in mass…..yesterday.

      Its definately been a weird spring here. A lot of false starts – temps in the 70’s and 80’s – which are then followed by snow or cold temps.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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