Deer herd reduction talks move aheadBIRA meets with DEM August 17
Members of the New Shoreham Deer Task Force (DTF), already concerned about the high number of Lyme disease cases reported on the island this year, were drawn to a recent report of a first case of the rare Powassan Virus found in New York state. While similar to Lyme disease, the Powassan virus can be transmitted within 15 minutes of a tick bite and is considered significantly more dangerous. The recent developments were discussed at the Deer Task Force meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 13.
Although there is no evidence that the Powassan virus has made an appearance on Block Island, the news highlighted what the DTF has known: tick-borne illnesses carried by deer pose a serious public health threat to communities with large populations of deer. The hope of the DTF is that this news, which caused U. S. Sen. Charles Schumer to ask the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to look into tick-borne related illnesses, will add a sense of urgency to the dialogue at the upcoming Block Island Residents Association (BIRA) meeting on Aug. 17.
At that meeting, on Saturday, BIRA will meet with Catherine Sparks, the Assistant Director for Natural Resources at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
In an email to members of the DTF that was sent on Aug. 5, Sparks noted the need to “substantially reduce the size of Block Island’s deer herd.”
She said: “Through the efforts of a small work group, which includes DEM wildlife biologists and two members of the Deer Task Force, progress has been made through regular meetings and conference calls in improving communication and understanding of the mutual concerns associated with addressing the high population of deer on Block Island. Discussions have developed into broader recognition of the need to substantially reduce the size of Block Island’s deer herd and the complexities associated with this effort. Public safety, avoidance of wanton waste and cost are some of the important issues that must be addressed.”
At the BIRA meeting, Sparks will answer questions and to provide a status report on the DEM’s pilot program on deer reduction scheduled for this coming winter.
Sen. Schumer has called on the CDC to “allocate resources toward the study, prevention and treatment of the emerging Powassan virus threat.”
Believing “this backyard danger can pose a serious public health problem,” the New York senator is also supporting legislation to “direct more resources and attention toward fighting back against the growing problem of other tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, Babesiosis and more.”
Members of the local group felt that this national attention only confirmed the pressing necessity for culling the deer herd on the island.
Chair Ruth Perfido was hopeful that progress could be made as she pointed out that, since April, there have been four meetings of the DEM and the Deer Task Force. She encouraged everyone to come to the BIRA meeting and prepare to ask questions there.
The plan for the meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. at Harbor Church, is that task force business will be the first item on the agenda since the DEM must return on an early boat. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) speakers are scheduled to talk later about the state’s ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) and on the changing shore line.
Bill Rader spoke up as someone who has contracted Lyme disease. Rader urged the task force to publish reports and articles on their progress so that the public will be kept informed. “We, the people of Block Island, need to know; we need to be brought up to date on what you and they [researchers and state people] are doing,” he said.
Resident Bill McKernan agreed with Rader, saying that educating the public was important. He noted that George Mellor had been writing articles on the issue for The Block Island Times, and felt that the recent spate of articles in The New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine on the growing threat of Powassan virus was timely.
“We’ve never seen articles like these [in national publications] month after month. It’s become a serious health problem, but the momentum is with us,” McKernan said. “We can start to get people on our side, if our strategy is to make people aware.”
“What we need to convey is our sense of urgency,” said DTF member Becky Ballard. Perfido noted that she and Ballard planned to attend a Town Council work session on Aug. 14. “We’re going to give them an update,” she added.
Addressing the group, Perfido asked whether there were special areas people would like to be involved in. For example, she said Lisa Sprague had agreed to work on funding projects for the culling program. Perfido explained that the task force “needed to have a Block Island Health Services liaison.”
Hatfield asked while they were reaching out if they couldn’t also write to the state Department of Health asking them to make a statement — perhaps an open letter to the public and the DEM — supporting a program of culling the deer. McKernan thought they should also speak with state legislators, state representative Donna Walsh and state Sen. Susan Sosnowski.
Perfido offered a “belated welcome to Heather [Hatfield] as a new member of the board,” introducing her as a “business owner who has children and is a full-time resident.”
The next Deer Task Force meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m.