ISLESBORO, Maine — Lyme disease rates have reached an “epidemic” level on a Maine island, so a local tick disease committee is asking to bring gun hunting to the island to reduce the deer herd. Islesboro voters will decide the issue on Aug. 24.
“It doesn’t seem like a big deal to many people. You get [bitten] by a tick and then a bull’s-eye rash — no big deal,” Sue Bolduc said. “This disease can be devastating.”
Bolduc, 58, of Islesboro contracted the disease this summer. Before she was diagnosed she was so weak she began looking at chairs differently — would that one be too difficult to get out of?
One day in early July, Bolduc was in the shower. When she bent down to pick up a bar of soap, there it was on her right thigh: the telltale bull’s-eye rash.
When she stepped through the door of the island’s health center glistening with sweat, her physician assistant, Allie Wood, instantly knew: Lyme disease.
While that diagnosis might not have come as quickly to most doctors, it was easy for Wood because in the past eight years, the health center has seen at least 69 cases of Lyme disease. Because the island has a year-round population of about 600 people, that’s an epidemic, according to Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee.
So far this summer, the island health clinic has diagnosed 20 cases officially and treated more than 20 suspected cases with antibiotics. The problem is growing.
Bolduc is fine now. She recognized the telltale signs of Lyme disease early in the infection and was given a dose of antibiotics, so she recovered within weeks.
There were some warning signs Bolduc admits she should have seen. The fatigue she felt after the school year ended was consuming. Her 15-year-old dog had Lyme disease. Deer use her yard as a path.
That last piece, the deer, have taken the brunt of the blame for the island “epidemic” in a recently issued 59-page report by the committee.
A healthy deer population density in Maine is about 10 per square mile. Islesboro has closer to 50 per square mile. There are about 500 deer on the 11-mile-long island in Waldo County, which means the deer population is almost as high as the human population.
Ticks on Islesboro need deer to live. They only breed on large animals, such as deer, horses and humans. So if Islesboro reduces its deer herd, it will reduce the opportunities for Lyme-infected ticks to feed and breed.
The town is in a special situation: “Because of their isolation, islands have sufficient vegetation for browsing and no predators. [Islands] are vulnerable to rapid deer population growth and corresponding incidence of tick-borne disease,” according to the report by the Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee.
But because it’s an island, it also can have a lot of control over its deer herd. Unlike towns on the mainland, deer cannot travel as easily from other areas and take over. For instance, on Monhegan Island in 1996, 13 percent of year-round residents contracted Lyme disease. So the island relaxed hunting regulations and hired sharpshooters. By 1999, every deer was dead. They haven’t seen a deer since. Between 2001 and 2010, that island has seen one case of Lyme Disease.
Islesboro allows bow hunting for about 12 weeks each fall, but no gun hunting.
Although deer enable the disease, ticks are the true enemy.
No one knows this as well as Mark West, 58, who summers on Spruce Island, which is part of the town of Islesboro.
West, his wife, daughter and sister are the only ones who live on Spruce Island.
West goes there each summer, taking a break from his job as an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Manitoba. He calls his 10-by-14-foot cabin “my happy place.”
But the woods have changed since West got Lyme disease.
“I’d never been so scared in my life. I’d been to New York and been mugged. This was an existential fear,” West said.
He couldn’t move. He laid on his couch on the first floor because he couldn’t make it up the stairs.
“I felt like I was going to be a cripple. I could feel it,” he said. “It was my great fear: My life was gone. Everything I wanted to do — I couldn’t function. It was so scary. Everything I ever wanted was in jeopardy.”
He’d heard other people in Islesboro had contracted the disease and he asked his doctor to treat him for it. Now he is fine. Mostly.
“The woods is a different place for me. It’s not a benign place anymore. It used to be. There are no snakes or bears or anything,” West said. “There is an invisible danger. It’s changed things for me. It’s a psychological change for me about my relationship with the woods.”
Now West tucks his pants into his socks, wears boots and long sleeves. No more shorts and T-shirts, like he used to wear. He does tick checks every other day.
“It’s Russian roulette every time you go get wood for the fire,” West said.
But it isn’t Russian roulette. In that lethal game, there is one bullet in a revolver. The player spins the cylinder, points the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. A one-in-six chance. On Islesboro, if a tick sucks a person’s blood for more than 24 hours, that person has a one-in-two chance of contracting Lyme disease.
A few decades ago, there were no ticks on Islesboro. By 2006, a quarter of the deer ticks on the island carried Lyme bacteria, but the ticks have become more infectious with time. Now half of the ticks on Islesboro carry Lyme bacteria.
The Islesboro Health Center has a staff of three physician assistants. One of them is Owen Howell, 46, who started working there nine years ago. Back then, Lyme disease wasn’t much of an issue. The year he started, the center dealt with no cases of it.
“It’s getting worse,” Howell said.
“We diagnosed three people yesterday,” added physician assistant Allie Wood, 56.
“Almost a grand slam,” Howell joked. “They just keep coming.”
Although the health center staff tries to keep an open mind about diagnoses, Howell said, “[Lyme disease] is closer to the front of your mind than it was in the past.”
A lot closer.
“If someone comes in to me with flu symptoms, the first thing I think of is Lyme disease. Sometimes it’s not Lyme disease — but often it is,” she said.
According to Wood and Howell, most of the 69 people who have been diagnosed in the past eight years (A number that does not include the number of suspected cases — there have been 20 so far this summer), are doing fine. They just needed a few weeks of antibiotics to get the bacteria out of their bodies. A few people still suffer from the effects of the disease.
“I can think of a handful of people who are not OK, but most of them are fine now,” Wood said. “When treated early, Lyme disease is eradicated. The cases that bother me are the longer-lasting cases that affect people permanently. I want to eliminate that from the island.”
The proposed solution
Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee tussled for a year over the Lyme disease problem and decided the deer are the major issue. The committee is asking residents to vote on Aug. 24 to reduce the deer herd from 48 deer to 10 deer per square mile by gun hunting and expanding bow hunting.
There has never been gun hunting on the island before, and although the limited season would be for islanders only, it has become a contentious issue. Some of the hunters who bow hunt like it that way and don’t want any gun hunters to take away their animals. Some residents don’t want bullets flying on an 11-mile-long island that has some densely populated neighborhoods.
Laura Houle, 39, is the chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report. Houle’s logic follows the report, “[ticks] need the deer on Islesboro.”
And in her opinion, the town has done what it could with bow hunting. It expanded the season. It allows unlimited doe permits and two buck permits per hunter. But still, the deer have overrun the small town. So much so that every single gardener on the island must build a 6-foot-tall fence if they want to reap any of their harvest. They need guns, Houle and her committee argue.
The year-round residents of Islesboro will vote on whether to accept the committee’s recommendations on Aug. 24.
“It’s now in the townspeople’s hands,” said Houle.