Good news: There’s a solution to Lyme disease and other maladies spread by deer ticks that doesn’t require any new scientific discoveries, any expensive medications, or any distracting fights between Lyme activists and the mainstream medical community. It’s free, it’s all-natural, and, best of all, it’s very handsome.
It’s the gray wolf.
Lyme bacteria need the help of two different animals to spread to people: mice, which carry the disease, and deer, which spread the ticks that transmit it from mice to humans. White-tailed deer virtually disappeared from New England in the 19th century as a result of hunting and deforestation. They surged back into their old habitat in the last half of the 20th century, though, bringing their tick associates with them.
But the deer returned to an ecosystem much different from the one they left: lacking their two main natural predators, mountain lions and wolves, both wiped out by humans. That’s caused deer — and tick — populations to explode.
In addition to Lyme, ticks spread a host of other diseases — including some truly scary ones like Powassan virus, which is very rare, but can be fatal.
The lack of a natural check on the deer population has led some Lyme researchers to advocate for allowing human hunters — the third major deer predator in pre-colonial Massachusetts — to bring the population down to more natural levels.
Sam Telford, an epidemiologist at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, argued for allowing more bow-hunting, a recommendation incorporated into a state commission report in 2013. But the idea went nowhere, and Lyme disease has spread into the area between Interstate 495 and Route 128.
“Who knows whether some of the communities grossly affected would be in the same place they are now” if more hunting had been allowed?, he said.
Still, to hunt our way out of Lyme disease would take sustained effort, because deer would quickly repopulate. The CDC says deer hunts can be effective as an anti-Lyme strategy in isolated areas like islands, but would be less effective on the mainland for keeping deer populations low over time.
“To control them to the levels they need to be controlled is difficult. It’s not that it couldn’t work, but it’s difficult,” said Paul Mead, the chief of the bacterial diseases branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One reason for the difficulty is that hunting quickly runs into what experts refer to as the Bambi problem. Some people are not comfortable with allowing the killing of deer, even when doing so restores the ecosystem to something closer to its proper balance.
So maybe it’s time to bring back one or both of their natural predators to do the job we’re clearly too squeamish to do ourselves.
Watch: It’s time to take Lyme seriously
This is not a new idea. The reintroduction of gray wolves into the Northeast has been debated periodically for decades, especially after their successful reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and a few western states, though some scientists have argued that the mountain lion, also known as the cougar, would be a better candidate for reintroduction in New England.
Nancy Warren, the executive director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said wolves probably wouldn’t thrive outside a few rural parts of New England, since they don’t like roads. She also cautions that they aren’t a magic-bullet solution to deer overpopulation, and in fact make deer herds healthier by weeding out the weakest deer. But wolves could help limit Lyme disease in a different way: Red foxes and weasels — the main predators of the mice that carry the Lyme bacteria — do better in ecosystems that also contain wolves, since the wolves scare off coyotes. Fewer coyotes means more red foxes and weasels; that means fewer mice; and fewer mice means less Lyme.
Of course, it would be an understatement to say that wolves have a PR problem. Thanks to one bad decision by a fairy tale character, the entire species is perceived as big — and bad.
But this is one case where popular perceptions of risk are skewed.
Wolves have not been particularly dangerous to people — there are only two documented cases of fatal wolf attacks in North America. “Wolf attacks are so rare that they make news worldwide,” Warren said. “They don’t see people as prey.”
Deer, on the other hand, cause around $1 billion in car-accident damage every year. And some of the accidents result in a loss of human life. Animal collisions caused 211 deaths in 2017, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; the data isn’t broken down by animal, but a study suggested that about three-quarters of the animals involved in fatal car crashes are deer. In other words, there’s a chance we’d be safer with wolves patrolling the forest and thinning out deer populations than we are without them.
Plus, just look at the wolf cub photo. Would you want that face to starve?