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Monday, December 15, 2008

Getting Rid of Ticks Takes Time and Money

By PAT WIEDENKELLER

Doug Kuntz for The New York Times

LURES When deer eat the corn in four-poster devices, above, they are dosed with insecticide.

SHELTER ISLAND

BY all accounts, this was a good first year for a three-year study meant to eradicate ticks on Shelter Island, one of the worst spots for tick-borne diseases in New York.

Cornell University scientists scoured the woods and fields collecting tick nymphs. They tagged dozens of tick-bearing deer and hung bulky G.P.S. units around some of their necks, to track their every move. And last week they were packing away the 58 four-poster feeding stations that had been set up all over the island to lure deer and dose their necks and faces with pesticide.

The researchers will haul them out again in March for the study’s second year, when they expect to see tick numbers start to fall off, and maybe plummet.

If the experimental program succeeds, advocates say, it could all but wipe out the black-legged and lone star ticks that have besieged Shelter Islanders for years, spreading Lyme disease and other serious maladies.

But the project is far from out of the woods.

The $1.2 million effort, paid for initially with money from the state, Suffolk County and the Town of Shelter Island, as well as local committees and foundations, could run short of money by next summer, government officials and community advocates said. That could cripple the project, advocates said, because it was designed to be a three-year program of data collection and pesticide treatment tied to fatally disrupting the life cycle of the tick.

“There’s one goal in this project: to see it through to completion,” said Vincent Palmer, a pesticide control specialist with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, who also sat on the Suffolk County Tick Management Task Force set up by County Executive Steve Levy in 2006.

Assemblyman Marc Alessi, who, with State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, helped secure $100,000 for the project this year, said he would not count on state financing in the coming year of budget slashing. Mr. Levy, who this year released $155,000 in start-up funds approved in 2007 by the County Legislature, wants to see some results before doing it again, said Ben Zwirn, a deputy county executive.

And Rae Lapides, who heads the nonprofit Shelter Island Deer and Tick Management Foundation and raised $125,000 from the community last year, said she was worried that the fat days may be over.

“Usually we can do end-of-the-year fund-raising and people get bonuses and can get a tax write-off,” she said. “This year we may not be seeing that.”

The town began the four-poster project after securing permission from the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Deer at the feeding stations, which are baited with corn, rub their heads against rollers soaked with a tickicide, permethrin, as they eat. The state bans the four-poster devices, in part because it prohibits the feeding of wild deer, which encourages them to congregate and can spread diseases among herds.

Advocates who fought for years for the four-poster hope it can be a long-term solution to soaring tick populations on the East End, where a majority of Long Island’s Lyme disease cases are reported. Last year, 234 cases of Lyme were reported in Suffolk, up from 190 the year before, said Beth Goldberg, a State Health Department spokeswoman.

The study must be conducted over three to four consecutive years — linked to the tick’s life cycle — to produce usable results, said Dale Moyer, who supervises the study for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Mr. Palmer, the state pesticide control specialist, said: “It’s not like you can suspend the study for one year. If the third year were not to go forward, that would be a waste of the years of study.”

Financing is built into next year’s budget for the Town of Shelter Island, to pay for corn bait, the contract for the professional application of the permethrin, maintenance and labor, said James Dougherty, the town supervisor, adding that he had recently persuaded the East End Supervisors Foundation to donate $20,000 for next year.

Beyond that, he was not sure. “People support the program,” he said, “but they’re really strapped.”

In the meantime, Ms. Lapides said she would be reaching out to the Shelter Island community for new donations. Next month, she said, the foundation will turn over the $75,000 it has to the Cornell study.

“After that,” she said, “we beg, borrow and steal.”

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