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Pennsylvania Game Commission: Reducing deer herd unlikely to stem Lyme disease spread

PATRICK VARINE
(Greensburg) Tribune-Review (TNS)
Pa. Game Commission logo

For Ryan Johnson of Norvelt, Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer are more than just a potentially dangerous nuisance.

“Deer in Pennsylvania are playing a huge part in ruining lives and costing people major money through accidents and disease,” Johnson said. “Lyme disease is a big deal and doesn’t get the attention it should, and neither does this whole deer problem.”

Johnson and two other friends were bitten by Lyme-carrying ticks in June at different locations in Westmoreland County. He said the state should be doing more to manage the deer population, including extending the hunting season.

But officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission said the problem is more complex than that.

“We’re never going to get rid of the ticks by managing deer,” state game warden Chris Bergman said. “We’re not specifically doing deer management to address the tick.”

Growing deer population: According to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer population has grown from about 10 deer per square mile in the 1700s to an estimated 30 deer per square mile.

And, while Lyme disease is certainly a concern, both Bergman and game commission wildlife management supervisor Samara Trusso said the commission’s primary concern is chronic wasting disease.

“One of the primary vectors for Lyme transmission is small mammals like white-footed mice,” Trusso said. “I know the ‘deer tick’ has really put the target on deer, but we would still have Lyme transmission and tick movement without them.”

Johnson said he likely would have continued to receive an incorrect flu diagnosis if his tick bite hadn’t suddenly bloomed the classic red bull’s eye after four days.

“Everybody just keeps dealing with it, but let the citizens that want to hunt (deer) do it all year long in unlimited numbers until the population gets to a reasonable number,” he said.

Formation of Game Commission: Unlimited deer hunting, however, is the reason the Pennsylvania Game Commission was formed in the first place.

By the late 1800s, unregulated hunting had driven the deer population dangerously low in Pennsylvania. The game commission was formed in 1895, according to DCNR, establishing the state game lands where many hunters flock during deer season.

When it comes to the road, Pennsylvania is among three states where drivers are most likely to have a collision with wildlife, according to State Farm’s annual analysis. Residents who hit the highway have a 1-in-52 chance of hitting an animal — most likely a deer.

State with most Lyme incidents: While population reduction measures could potentially lower that number, Trusso said it is not likely to change Pennsylvania’s status as the state with the most annual Lyme incidents.

“There have been studies in New England where they’ve reduced the deer population and not found a change in Lyme transmission or its occurrence in small mammals,” Trusso said.

There were just over 10,200 cases of Lyme disease reported in Pennsylvania in 2018, the first time in recent years that number has dropped. The state had 11,900 cases in 2017. Of that total, Westmoreland County was the third-highest in the state with 496 cases, behind only Butler (624) and Chester (678) counties. Westmoreland’s numbers declined for the third year in a row, down from 577 cases in 2016. York County had 448 cases, which was most ever recorded in the county.

Trusso said the commission recommends the use of bug repellents containing permethrin for those venturing into tick-populated areas.

Johnson would like to see additional efforts.

“Figure something else out,” he said. “Deer are, unfortunately, nothing but pests at this point.”