Is there a solution to the spread of Lyme Disease in the Northeast? On Thursday, Oct. 19 in the Reading Room of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, a group of professors, professionals and students gathered to discuss potential solutions to the disease. The talk was called “Deer, Ticks and Lyme Disease: A Tangled Tale of History and Ecology” and was hosted by Prof. Brian Donahue (ENVS) and  Eric Olson, a senior lecturer of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management. 

Donahue began by stating that both he and his son have had Lyme disease. In 2012, he was on a committee to reintroduce bowhunting to areas of Massachusetts. Bowhunting is the use of a bow instead of a gun to hunt various game, especially deer. The bowhunt was a highly contested decision and was petitioned ardently by animal rights groups, but as Donahue explained, “Lyme disease has completely changed the discussion on deer... Without deer, no ticks, no Lyme disease.” 

Donahue went on to draw a chart representing the growth in deer population. He explained that over the past 10,000 years, there have been three main stages of change in deer populations. Roughly 10,000 years ago, there were estimated to be 30 million white tailed deer in what is now the U.S. This number was found by estimating the number of Native Americans at the time and multiplying that estimate by an approximated number of deer per person. Though it is not an exact number, this estimate is widely accepted by the scientific community. 

In the 1600s, when Europeans arrived in North America, the deer population fell dramatically to an estimated 30,000. There was a large market for deerskins back in Europe and deer were a primary source of game meat. 

Donahue noted that another era of population change occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, when hunters, including people such as Teddy Roosevelt, changed hunting laws. Hunters wanted a more authentic and challenging hunt and sought to protect the deer population so that hunting could return as an accessible recreational activity with a “fair chase.” Due to this change, the deer population rose back to roughly 30 million. Donahue brought attention to the fact that “we hear all about deer overpopulation, but it’s something like it was before [European colonization].” What changed instead was the distribution; deer began flooding suburbs and areas populated by humans. With the cohabitation of deer and humans, Lyme Disease arrived in the Northeast.

Olson stepped up next and began by showing the room a vial containing  several live tick specimens. He admitted that “these are in [his] fridge next to [his] milk.” Ticks can live up to a year in a refrigerator without feeding. They hold onto vegetation with their back legs and wait for months until an animal passes by. The reason deer in particular pose a threat to the spread of Lyme Disease is their size; deer are likely to host many ticks, which then have a chance to breed on the deer. Olson remarked, “Deer are like a walking singles bar for ticks.” The growth in Lyme Disease in the past century has been remarkable and highly concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. A new estimate by the Center for Disease Control, which incorporated the estimated number  of unreported cases, said that there may have been as many as 30,000 new cases of Lyme Disease in the United States per year. Olson addressed the audience directly,  asking if people had been afflicted with Lyme Disease; four people, including Olson and Donahue, raised their hands, meaning that 25 percent of the audience had suffered from the disease. 

Deer are not the only culprits; mice, opossums and chipmunks, as well as other animals can act as hosts to ticks and the disease those ticks carry. Olson argued that the termination of these animals or the introduction of these animals’ natural predators into forests would not help lower the percentage of infected animals. Instead, he supported the idea that “as you add species, the number of infected ticks comes down lower and lower.” In a forest with a more diverse animal population, ticks will have a larger number of animals to feed on and will therefore be less likely to feed on an animal with Lyme Disease. 

But when it comes to fighting increasing deer populations in the suburbs, there is no simple answer. Olson and Donahue both support the reintroduction and popularization of deer hunting and, in particular, bowhunting. An audience member asked if there were safety risks, but Donahue chimed in, reassuring that bowhunts are extremely safe. The bow is only effective in short ranges, and many of the bowhunters are policemen or firemen and are extensively trained. While the decision to reintroduce hunting as a popular pastime may be highly contested, many people support the motion as a way to fight the rise of Lyme disease, which threatens more and more people every year, especially here in the Northeast.