Lyme Disease rages in Northeast

Wildlife solutions will irritate many people-

A new AP story tells us that the incidence of deer tick borne Lyme Disease continues to grow in the U.S. Northeast and to spread.  Worse, the very cold winter did not seem to reduce the number of the ticks significantly as some had predicted. The “deer tick” that primarily spreads the disease in New England is Ixodes dammini. Ixodes scapularis (Black legged tick) is the vector in the South. Ixodes pacificus spreads it in the Pacific Coastal area. The organism that causes Lyme is the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, although this conclusion is growing more complicated. 

It is doubtful that any one method will be the solution to this debilitating infection. However, wildlife management (killing deer) is often suggested. This will offend many hunters and deer lovers. Perhaps surprisingly, reducing the density of deer has not proven effective in most cases. However, other wildlife measures might be.

The primary reservoir for the organism is the white footed mouse, not the white-tailed deer. Yes, the deer are often infected and provide some of the needed blood meals for the nymphal and adult ticks.  Other small rodents can also be important reservoirs too.

The best wildlife solution is not obvious, and will irritate some hunters as much as killing deer. It is the promotion of the red fox, a species that is on the decline because of shooting, trapping, and perhaps habitat change. Part of that habitat is the coyote, which displaces the fox.

The red fox is the perfect predator of the white footed mouse, which is too small to attract much attention from coyotes. Promotion of the fox will alienate some because of its alleged impact on small game and perhaps small pets.

Urban forestry also places a role in control of the mouse. Small urban stands of trees in the forested East are perfect mouse habitat because of food for the mouse and a lack of mouse predators. Larger stands harbor fox and other mouse predators and tend to have a lower mouse density. This fact implies that the small lots of trees loved by many might need to be removed.  Larger stands, on the other hand, might be promoted.

All of these possibilities will meet resistance and are not mentioned in the AP article.

This information comes from scientific papers on the Internet and the recent book by David Quammen, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”




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  1. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    I disagree with the premise that coyotes are not effective predators of white footed mice and they certainly prey on deer. You have to break eggs to make an omelet so the reintroduction of red foxes and coyotes will be necessary to reduce Lyme Disease. Hunting may be an alternative in less populated areas. Before coyote and red fox populations were reduced by trapping and hunting, Lyme Disease occurence was not common.

    Just another example of the consequences of reducing predators.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      For most part I agree. It’s increase the number of the “good” animals-deer. Get rid of the “bad” animals foxes and coyotes, and unintentionally increase white-footed mouse population. Walla! Now the deer— mouse cycle is uninterrupted.

    2. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Snakes, particularly timber rattlers in some settings, will reduce white footed mice faster than fox and coyotes (combined). Working on finding a paper for just this subject, but may not get it till tomorrow. MAybe some kind herper will come along.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        Our Eastern rattlers are endangered, because, like wolves, they are misunderstood.

      2. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        Any type of snake that eats mice, constrictors in particular, but then again, the serpent is interpreted as the devil. And they get killed by the same humans who in turn help spread Lymes.

        1. Barb Rupers Avatar
          Barb Rupers

          While looking for information about species of snakes that eat mice I found that rubber boas enter burrows and consume litters of small mice. Also found a video of one eating an adult mouse and it clearly showes the peristaltic contractions as the food was moved through the esophagus. First time I have observed that so clearly.

          1. Barb Rupers Avatar
            Barb Rupers

            I only intended to send the link. What did I do different?

            1. Kathleen Avatar

              Rubber boas are awesome! We had one hang around our garage when we were building our home…maybe because of all the mice that got built into the house. (We live-trapped & released nearly 200–maybe it would have been more without the rubber boa?) Have seen them here and there a few times on the property, also. They’re cute little snakes…though they’re strictly a western species, so they won’t be helping out with eastern mice.

    3. ma'iingan Avatar

      [b]I disagree with the premise that coyotes are not effective predators of white footed mice and they certainly prey on deer. You have to break eggs to make an omelet so the reintroduction of red foxes and coyotes will be necessary to reduce Lyme Disease.[/b]

      Given that coyotes are not native to the Midwest or Northeast, where would you propose to [i]reintroduce[/i] them?

      The fact is that coyotes continue to expand in abundance and distribution, and are able to out-compete fox on most landscapes. And it’s true that they’re not efficient predators of mice, so they’re not much of a barrier against Lyme.

    4. MAD Avatar

      Gary, coyotes do not need to be “reintroduced” to the Northeast. In fact, there’s probably a higher density of them in the Northeast than in the West because they have very few large competitors like wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, etc. There are black bears in the Northeast though. Additionally, the Northeast coyote contains a certain level of wolf DNA due to cross-breeding with the now extinct Eastern Timber Wolf. So they are larger than their western cousins and ancestors. There’s lots of genetic studies on them in the last 10 years.

      So, no, you’re wrong that by having a significant coyote population the mice would be kept in check. When coyotes are walking around in Philadelphia and Manhattan & Central Park in New York City, you know there’s a sizeable population. Hunting & trapping have not removed them from the landscape.

      1. B Gutierrez Avatar
        B Gutierrez

        I know this is not scientific and it is true they don’t have to be re-introduced but we don’t hear them like we used to in our part of Ithaca…

      2. Cheryl Avatar

        I don’t know the specifics of what is being said, but human interference with predators has caused an increase in Lyme disease and illnesses like it. We disrupt ecosystems and think there will be no consequence.

        If you see lots of something in the city, it doesn’t mean its numbers are high necessarily, it means the animal has dense populations in the wrong habitat. That is likely due to habitat encroachment. Just my opinion.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan


          Yes. Disrupted and simplified habitats have facilitated the spread of Lyme Disease. The white-footed mouse is the major reservoir for the Lyme agent. The mouse thrives best in small restored pine and grass woods with little ecological diversity, such as a street corner park or vacant lot.

          These will support few mouse predators such as fox.

  2. MJ Avatar

    Is the increase in disease really a surprise given everything that we know? Since we insist on experimenting on animals by slaughtering populations of “bad” animals, based on sporting interests, then realize that might have been an oopsie and they are now “good” animals, then choose another “bad” group of unwitting animals to slaughter, then another oopsie,.. etc,.. vs. working with Nature for it’s intrinsic value and defending it.. why is an increased incidence of disease a surprise?

    Are we really going to let this continue because hunters might get irritated?

    1. Yvette Avatar

      ++ MJ

      For as smart as our species is we sure make a lot of silly and detrimental decisions.

  3. B Gutierrez Avatar
    B Gutierrez

    Just my own anecdotal evidence from Central New York – We had ticks on our dog starting in February this year – Even a slight thaw and we’re overrun with them. I live near Cornell University and the “solution” by the natural resources department in conjunction with a local neighborhood was to sterilize the deer then instead of waiting for that to work to cut down the population- they brought in bow hunters (this in what are residential areas) then when that wasn’t enough they switched to trap and bolt which is horrible – Honestly, it’s not the deer’s fault the situation is what it is and they’re not even the main reservoir for the ticks as others have said. The truth is that when the deer started eating wealthy people’s gardens and Cornell’s plantings they had to go but at the same time people here don’t want the coyotes and foxes because they claim that they kill their cats and little dogs so we have coyote and fox killing “contests”. The worst part of it all is there’s no room for a conversation to come up with a long term rational solution. Cornell owns a lot of the land so they do what they want and I learned not to even bring up the benefit of predators with a hunter – no matter what the facts may be, they won’t even listen..I don’t mind a debate but it’s pointless if what you say is discounted before it’s even said. Facts don’t matter when they “just know”.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      Foxes and coyotes will prey on house cats and small dogs. It seems reasonable for cat owners to keep their cats indoors (house cat) and owners will small dogs would supervise them. Cats kill millions of birds every year and defecate on neighbors yards and small dogs bite a lot of strangers (small dog syndrome). This is called responsible ownership.

      Then the coyotes and foxes can kill the mice, and reduce the occurrence of Lyme and other diseases carried by rodents. But since Cornell doesn’t want to discuss the alternatives, Lyme Disease will continue to increase. Wait till one of their faculty members contracts it, its a extremely debilitating disease if not caught soon enough.

      1. B Gutierrez Avatar
        B Gutierrez

        I absolutely agree – Cornell will come up with expensive, complicated “solutions” but ignore the obvious. These are smart people .. I can’t believe they don’t know what they’re doing won’t work so there must be another agenda.
        As for the little dogs and cats – we have both as well as chickens and a duck – they’re all either indoors,in a fenced yard or on a leash – Never had a problem in spite of living next to fields and woods.

      2. Randy Fischer Avatar
        Randy Fischer

        My 18 years with Red Fox in Colorado: fox give the house cat lots of room. Fox killing house cats is atypical, but it is also clear that coyote kill both house cats and fox.

  4. Mike Avatar

    ++The primary reservoir for the organism is the white footed mouse, not the white-tailed deer. Yes, the deer are often infected and provide some of the needed blood meals for the nymphal and adult ticks. Other small rodents can also be important reservoirs too.++

    And guess what kind of habitat the white-footed mouse prefers? Unnatural forest openings of ten acres or less. The combination of clear cuts and warmer weather over the last fifty years has brought this on.

    When you look at the forestry practices in the upper Midwest and the northeast, it’s not a surprise.

    People always used to think “wear a hat so a tick doesn’t fall on your head in the woods”. Actually, the worst thing you can do is walk through open areas with ankle-high (or higher) grass.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      You are right. The ticks stay at a low level in the grass, and that is why rodents, especially the white footed mouse are reservoirs.

      David Quammen writes that the white footed mouse is the more favored by ticks because they are sloppy groomers and don’t seem to be bothered by the tick bites.

    2. B Gutierrez Avatar
      B Gutierrez

      Not just grass but leaf litter in the woods and rotting logs – they are literally everywhere – Bad as it is here in New York, it’s apparently even worse in Rhode Island. Our relatives there have all been through multiple courses of antibiotics for Lyme disease..

  5. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    Where I take my dogs in the past and present Shark River park and the other parks in the area are pretty big 3 to 6 0r 7 mile hiking trails. I seen one red fox cross the road once only once. Then we had coyotes well they were killed in no time. ONE on 33 I called the cops and they said the animal was too small to be a dog or coyote. Then driving on Garden State PKY another of dead so called dog on side highway with a cop car standing by. They do not have a chance here not at all. I knew they were around because my dogs would get spooked at times.

  6. Yvette Avatar

    With the discussion on ticks and deer, I thought I’d share this photo. We have a wildlife rehabber extraordinaire here in OK, and she runs her rebab operation, Wildheart Ranch, and has helped many species of wildlife heal and then releases them. She just does fantastic work with wildlife. This photo was sent to her from Virginia. While this is probably a different species of tick it still shows the seriousness of too many ticks. Humans suffer, and wildlife suffers. This picture was from a couple of summers ago, but I never forgot it.

    I have no idea what purpose ticks serve, but when our ecological systems get out of balance many suffer.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      In our travels we went to a remote place called the Osa Peninusla in Costa Rica. The camp that we stayed at had no electricity, no cars, no roads even there were trails through the jungle. There were plenty of ticks, however. I was astonished to see the horses covered in ticks like the image of the fawn you posted. I had no idea that ticks were so prevalent in Central/South America. I keep meaning to read more on them to answer that question, ” I have no idea what purpose ticks serve”. I suspect birds eat them but they are one of those species that its hard to find love for….

      on another note coyotes help keep the populations of deer and white footed mice down! another reason to help protect them

      1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

        Ticks and other parasites do not have any “purpose” and neither do any other animals, including ourselves. They simply have found a way to exist and reproduce, the same as any other successful species.
        Only humans run around labeling living things as “good” or “bad” depending on how we perceive them.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    In order of importance in nourishing and infecting the deer ticks are the white footed mouse, chipmunk, shrew. Any mammal or even most reptiles can provide a blood meal, however.

    The ticks are not born infected, and the ticks in a locale can range from a few per cent to ninety per cent infected by Lyme Disease.

    A single white tailed deer can give as many as 2-million ticks a blood meal in a year. Nonetheless, their contribution to the total of infected ticks is just an asterisk.

  8. Wolfy Avatar

    Lost four dogs in two years to Lyme’s Disease and knew of several people who contracted it as well. Its a nasty disease and should be treated as we do rabies. If you live in high tick or disease rate areas, get your pets vaccinated and always do “tick checks”.

  9. Bill Le Voir-Barry Avatar

    This disease may continue to spread, as Grey Wolves control deer populations naturally that carry Lyme Disease. The more that wolves are hunted back to extinction, we, as humans, are also loosing a natural protection of lyme disease. States and Department of Natural Resources don’t want you (us) to know that.

    Please see my petition that I started to help get the wolves back into Federal Protection. I know it’s only a start, but I wanted to do something!!

  10. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I went out this morning and put up a hummingbird feeder and two yellowjacket traps. Obviously I have decided that hummingbirds are “good” and that yellowjackets are “bad”.
    I have discovered that I can “manage” the number of yellowjacket nests around my acre by “harvesting” the yellowjacket queens as they come out of hibernation.

    The locals have decided that Mosquitoes are “bad” and have voted in a mosquito abatement district. Mosquito foggers patol the area around Cascade Lake at night, all summer, spraying pesticides(malathion) to kill the “bad” mosquitoes. I have discovered that the poison fog kills all of the “good” bumble bees, so I do not let them spray mosquito poison along my dead end road. They post it with small “no spray” signs and leave me and the bumble bees alone.
    In my own way, I decide what is “bad” and what is
    “good”, based on my own likes and dislikes.
    Trying to get everyone to agree on which living things to let live and which to kill is a very difficult endeavor.

  11. Peter Liepmann Avatar
    Peter Liepmann

    The other response is to kill the ticks- which chickens and guinea fowl are very good at doing.


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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