• Retired DNR Area Wildlife Manager says there are reasons more white-tailed deer are showing up in Crookston, and with that comes more deer ticks and the threat of Lyme disease.
Though tiny, deer ticks pose a threat to humans. Deer ticks can be about the size of a poppy seed to a sesame seed, but don’t let that fool you. The tiny arachnids also carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdoferi or Borrelia manoii, which, when transmitted to humans and animals through the tick’s bite, causes an infection called Lyme disease.
Ross Hier, former Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area wildlife manager in Crookston, has noticed the steady increase in cases of Lyme disease, and the repercussions involved.
“Several of my comrades have come down with it to the point that it has affected them physically, they can’t feel their feet very well,” Hier said. “There are some very real repercussions if you contract this disease.”
If unnoticed or untreated, the disease can leave its victim with chronic joint inflammation, also known as Lyme arthritis, neurological problems such as paralysis on one side of the face, numbness or weakness in limbs, impaired muscle movement, cognitive defects such as impaired memory, and heart rhythm irregularities.
In order to transmit the disease, the tick must be on the human body for 36-48 hours or longer. With their small size, the ticks often escape notice. A characteristic “bulls-eye” rash of red circles often appears around the location of the bite, notifying the victim of the disease. Other telling symptoms include fever, fatigue, chills, neck stiffness, headache, and swollen lymph nodes.
When the disease is caught early, it can be cured with antibiotics. However, time is of the essence with this disease. Treatment is much more effective and repercussions less severe the sooner the disease is treated.
Lyme disease is also the fastest-growing bug transmitted disease in the United States, a trend that’s only expected to continue.
“I moved here in 1988,” Hier said, “and I’ve always had dogs, so I’m always doing annual checkups for the dogs.”
Hier took his dogs to Dr. Bruce Pierce, who had a veterinary practice in both Thief River Falls and Crookston until 2015.
“1991 was the first time he told me he was starting to see deer ticks showing up in the Thief River area,” Hier said. “By 1992, 1993, he was starting to see them on dogs that people brought in here in Crookston.”
The reason why deer ticks are spreading is attributed to the increase of the deer tick’s main host – the white-tailed deer.
“It’s not like this just happens,” Hier said.
Hier said that starting in 1987, the Midwest was going through a severe drought, leading to almost a decade of unusually mild winters. “And that is a pattern that has continued,” Hier said.
Winter Severity Index, or WSI, is a measurement used for white-tailed deer of the depth of snow and daily temperatures during the winter. Hier said that if the numbers add up to 100 by February, it is considered a tough winter for deer.
“’96, ’97, ’98 were tough winters, really tough winters, the kind I remember from when I was a kid. But we really haven’t had that difficult of winters since then,” Hier said.
Since then, the WSI hasn’t been very high, with numbers in the area rarely reaching above 80.
Hier attributes these milder falls and winters to climate change, but does not think that it is the only reason for rising deer numbers, and along with it, rising tick numbers.
“Coupled with that, you have baby boomers,” Hier said. “You have something that didn’t happen before that and that’s affluence.”
Hier said that baby boomers began to use their money to buy hunting land.
“They had enough money to not only own a home but to spend money on land,” Hier said, “and what is their sole purpose of that? Deer hunting. They themselves are going to try to improve their own piece of heaven to the umpteenth degree to improve deer habitats. Suddenly, instead of solid forest like on the east side of Polk County, you have these private pockets where they have a 10 or 20 acre food plot, which never used to exist.”
Along with mild winters and intensive deer management on a private scale was public demand. ”There was pressure on field people wildlife managers to keep deer numbers high,” Hier said.
“With that affluence you start getting the spinning off of little entities, and one of them is all about the antlers,” Hier said, adding that he once gave a talk at a meeting he titled, ‘The Perfect Storm of Deer.”
Hier’s perfect storm of deer is weather, money, and machoism.
“Machoism, where you couldn’t shoot a deer or a fawn or your buddies would ridicule you,” Hier said. “Or papas would tell their daughters or sons to shoot the big ones, get the big antlers. I drew this cartoon of these people bowing down at the giant altar of the big buck. It’s quite true in the southern states, they go as far as fencing in large chunks of land and trying to breed big deer. There is this ingrained feeling now of high numbers are good, big bucks are good.”
Hire also noted the effect that the media had the public’s expectation of deer through hunting shows on the television.
“They greatly influenced people,” Hier said. “People really believed there always were 140 point bucks, 180 point racks behind every tree. Well, it’s not like that, because every wildlife population is a pyramid, and only ‘X’ number get to that spot.”
This in turn skewed the deer population. “You start seeing hunting parties passing on younger bucks, but at the the same time not taking any does, and then you have a really skewed population heavy toward adult females, and with mild winters, the population goes so fast and you can’t get on top of it again,” Hier said. “So by the early 2000s in Crookston we had intensive deer harvest with five-deer limits and we had an October season for does only.”
Hier also noted the change in hunting style and its effect on the amount of deer that could be harvested.
“When I first moved to Crookston, there were hardly any of these big standing deer blinds that you see everywhere now,” Hier said.
Hier said that hunters would line up and march through a piece of wooded area to push the deer out, and then a designated shooter would be ready to shoot the deer as they came out.
“Now, people in my age class don’t tend to walk anymore. So they all sit in the corners on the their deer stands, relying on a deer to come by them,” Hier said. “It’s very different and it greatly affects how much we can harvest. That’s a huge change, a subtle change.”
Hier noted that deer management needs to be intense in order to control the population.
Today, a typical deer limit is two white-tailed deer each season. “If you’d told people that 50 years ago, that they could shoot two white tails in a season, they’d be going ‘Yeah right, it’s impossible,’” Hier said.
The conditions that allow deer to flourish also allow the deer ticks to flourish. The deer tick is typically a spring and a fall tick, but its season is now extending almost year round.
The ticks are a danger to both humans and animals, particularly hunting dogs.
“I’ve had many friends who have had their dogs come up with Lyme, and it’s not good.” Hier said.
Dogs are often misdiagnosed. Lameness is a sign of Lyme disease in dogs, but owners often assume that the dog simply pulled a muscle.
However, for dogs, there are preventative measures against Lyme disease.
“Fortunately, we can do something pre-infection for them,” Hier said. “There’s two good things for dogs now. The old fashioned drug is the liquid between the shoulder blades that keeps deer ticks off. There is a new, a once every twelve weeks pill that a dog can take.”
Hier said that the pill, which his dog takes, kills the tick once it bites the the dog.
Although no vaccines are available for humans at the moment, humans can prevent Lyme disease by exposing as little skin as possible, tucking pants into socks, and doing tick checks every day.
“Anyone can pick up a deer tick these days,” Hier said.
There was a human vaccine for Lyme in the 90s, but it was shut down due to rumors that it gave some users arthritis.
Human vaccines continue to be studied.
Hier explained the journey of searching for the answer of the increase of deer ticks.
“In the business world, they say follow the money to your answer. In the wildlife world, it’s habitat and weather. What allows something to hit a peak period.”
Likely as a result of the factors Hier mentions, the number of deer spotted in Crookston has been and continues to be on the rise. They’re showing up in parks, in yards, and they’re walking right down the street. They’re a pleasant sight, and seeing them gives people a charge and they’re often quick to take out their cameras and phones and start taking photos and recording. But they’re also very possibly carrying deer ticks, so proceed with caution.
“The City of Crookston certainly encourages residents and visitors to take precautionary measures when enjoying the outdoors, mainly thoroughly checking yourself and family members after possible exposure to ticks,” City Administrator Shannon Stassen said, when asked if there’s any big concerns on the City’s park over increased deer traffic in the community.