An aerial infrared image of Shelter Island has given the town what officials are calling the most accurate count of the island deer population as the community continues to combat disease-carrying ticks.
The East End’s danger season for ticks runs from April through October, according to the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital regional tickborne disease resource center, and May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month.
Controlling deer is an especially important issue for Shelter Island, where 68% of blacklegged or deer ticks carry the pathogen that causes Lyme disease, according to 2020 data posted by the Suffolk County Tick Surveillance Program. That’s the second largest percentage of the county’s 10 towns, with Huntington the highest at 72%.
Lyme disease is the most common tickborne illness.
The Shelter Island deer and tick committee is working to implement strategies to reduce its herd to 50 deer per square mile during the summer peak, down from 100 per square mile in years past, according to the 2019 town deer management plan. The committee’s work also extends from educational outreach at the local school to a venison donation program to an online venison cooking demonstration featuring stew and enchilada recipes.
"People have to coexist with the deer and, unfortunately, there are a lot of ticks and we just have to be careful," said Julia Weisenberg, a committee member and local hunter.
The town committee commissioned a Jan. 24 flyover and presented data at its April meeting from a report that counted 635 deer on the island’s 7,600 acres. The number fluctuates, as hunters culled 138 deer this past winter and scores of fawns are expected to be born this spring.
The town paid Kent, Ohio-based Davis Aviation $25,148 to perform the work. The money was reallocated from a previous 4-poster deer control program the town shuttered in March 2020. The program brushed deer with the pesticide permethrin at feeding stations, although some questioned the wisdom of feeding the deer population while also trying to control it.
Pilot Larry Davis flew a Cessna 182 over the island and took the thermal images with a camera facing downward in the belly of the plane.
The deer appear as a fairly bright white dot or a narrow line, while domestic animals appear much brighter, meaning they are warmer, according to the report. Davis noted that the count may not be 100% accurate, though he believes it to be about 90% correct.
"My deer counts are generally considered a minimum definite number, as opposed to a maximum," Davis wrote in the report. "Some deer will go undetected in nearly every environment."
People who have contracted Lyme disease through a tick bite may develop a bull’s-eye rash and experience flu-like symptoms, fever and joint pain. Long-term effects can include swollen and painful joints and heart problems.
"You can try the best you can, but in the end it’s really about self-responsibility and vigilance on the part of the individuals," Weisenberg said. "Make sure that when you’re going out that you’re protecting yourself, because it’s impossible to get rid of every single tick."
Check for ticks daily, especially under the arms, in and around the ears, in the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the hairline and on the scalp.
Pull socks over pant legs and tuck shirts in while outdoors.
Mow yards frequently and remove piles of leaves to create a “tick-safe” yard.
Visit eastendtickresource.org or call 631-726-TICK for more information.
Source: Stony Brook Southampton Hospital regional tickborne disease resource center