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Deer hunt takes aim at Lyme disease

By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent | / October 16, 2011

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Several dozen hunters are set to draw their bows and let their arrows fly to help control Lyme disease in Medfield.

Starting tomorrow and continuing through Dec. 31, the end of the state’s hunting season, some 30 designated hunters will be able to set up in tree stands on land specially opened for the culling program. The hunt is allowed from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset every day except Sundays.

It is an effort that planners say will be crucial to bringing an increasingly overwhelming population of deer, and the Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks that accompany the species, back down to manageable levels.

“It’s an important public health issue that needs addressing,’’ said Chris Kaldy, chairwoman of the town’s Lyme Disease Study Committee. “According to MassWildlife, the deer population here is 25 per square mile. The ideal level is six to eight per square mile.’’

The state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife says that wherever deer thrive, there tends to be more cases of Lyme disease among humans living in the area. Likewise, where the herd is kept small, there is a lower incidence. Humans can be infected when bitten by deer ticks carrying the disease.

Among the symptoms of Lyme disease are fever, fatigue, depression, and a rash, according to the state Department of Public Health. Left untreated - antibiotics are the typical response - the disease can attack the joints, heart, and nervous system.

An effort like Medfield’s, said MassWildlife official Tom O’Shea, is the kind of template he would like to see statewide.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,’’ said O’Shea, the state agency’s assistant director of wildlife. “If every municipality took a similar approach, you’d start to have some impact.’’

That doesn’t mean that just anyone can hoist a bow and launch a steel-tipped shaft to help the cause, however.

“This very controlled, because they are hunting pieces of land the public uses too,’’ said Kaldy. “We’re very concerned about safety.’’

As a result, the cull has been limited to bow-and-arrow hunters on designated areas of town-owned land and properties owned by the Trustees of Reservations. The archers must stay in tree stands set up at least 500 feet from any dwellings and 150 feet from roads.

The Lyme Disease Study Committee, the Trustees of Reservations, and the Police Department screened the hunters who applied to participate in the program, verifying to their satisfaction that only the most qualified and careful were approved.

Additionally, there’s an educational push underway.

“The approach to this Lyme disease issue is three-pronged,’’ Kaldy said. “One is the education of the citizens on how to check for ticks and be aware of Lyme disease. The second is to teach the public to protect their personal property. The third component is to cull the deer herd.’’

The first two issues are being directed through the schools and local news media.

The study committee is working on a curriculum to introduce into wellness courses, and checklist cards about Lyme disease and deer ticks are being distributed to students in grades 1 and 3.

Kaldy said that communicating through press releases would help her volunteers get the message out. The committee wants residents to recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease, and to know what measures can be taken around the yard to prevent deer ticks from finding human hosts.

According to Kaldy, Medfield’s effort is based on a culling program started last year by the Board of Health in Dover that proved to be quite successful.

Barbara Roth-Schecter, chairwoman of Dover’s Lyme Disease Committee, said the number of hunters lined up to participate in her town’s program starting tomorrow is more than twice the figure from last fall.

“Last year, our pilot plan had 31 hunters,’’ Roth-Schechter said. “We now have more than 60 qualified and ready to roll. And the amount of huntable land that we have to use has more than tripled.’’

Other communities are getting on board, too, said O’Shea. Though MassWildlife does not track deer-culling programs in any formal way, he said, in recent years the agency has received requests for advice on the subject from Framingham, Sherborn, and Sudbury, as well as Dover and Medfield.

Next year, Kaldy said, Medfield may expand to allow bow-and-arrow hunting on private land, by request.

“The idea is that we need to make sure this runs smoothly first,’’ she said. “The measure of success for us, this year, would be safety and no negative impact. At minimum, it would be nice if each hunter got one deer.’’