Kent Fowler offers his presentation on deer and Lyme disease at Tuesday's RMA meeting.
[News brief published Aug. 20] The Rancho Murieta Association addressed concerns about the deer population here by hosting a panel with representatives from state departments of Food and Agriculture, Public Health, and Fish and Wildlife at its meeting Tuesday.
Kent Fowler, a resident who is chief of the animal health branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, organized the presentation on deer and Lyme disease. As a first step toward gaining information about the herd’s state of health and whether Lyme disease-transmitting ticks are present, Fowler and others on the panel recommended selecting and killing four to six deer with apparent health problems and performing necropsies on the animals. Fowler said it was up to the RMA board to authorize moving forward with this plan.
Panel members from the Department of Public Health provided information about Lyme disease. To date, vector control evaluations of the tick population in Rancho Murieta have netted no disease-carrying ticks, biologist Bryan Jackson reported.
An audience of 30 attended the hour-long presentation.
Ticks and Lyme disease
There are 47 species of ticks in California and of these, only eight bite humans, said Dr. Anne Kjemtrup, specialist in vector-borne diseases with the California Department of Public Health. The western black-legged tick is the one that transmits Lyme disease. "We don't have a lot of those in this area," she noted. Other ticks -- the Pacific Coast tick and the American dog tick -- are more plentiful.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, and non-specific flu-like symptoms can make the disease hard to diagnose. A rash is identified with the disease, and an allergic reaction to the bite can also occur. Other symptoms are palpitations, facial paralysis, joint swelling, and problems with memory and concentration. If the early symptoms aren't treated, the disease may progress and be more difficult to treat.
"Humans become infected when they are out where these nymphs or adults are found and they can unfortunately get fed upon," Kjemtrup said. "The role that the deer play … is that they're an amplifier of the ticks. If you have more deer, you'll have more ticks. It doesn't mean you'll have more infected ticks."
Adult ticks are often found on the uphill side of trails in the deciduous, hardwood forest, a habitat that requires moisture. In California, western black-legged ticks are found along the coast and higher in the Sierra Nevada, Kjemtrup said. "Out here, in grasslands, you're not going to find them. It's way too hot and dry for them."
The tiny, poppy-seed-sized nymphs are found under trees and on wood products, like picnic benches. "They're up there looking for lizards, which they really prefer to eat on," Kjemtrup said. Adult ticks are found on grasses and low plants.
A substance in the blood of lizards kills the Borrelia bacteria, "so if a nymphal tick feeds on that, the lizard clears the infection and now our adult is clean. … They're cleaning our ticks here in California…," she explained.
Adult ticks and nymphs are collected and tested for bacteria. The incidence of infected ticks and cases of Lyme disease are tracked by the Department of Public Health. "Like most infectious diseases, it's probably underreported,"Kjemtrup said of the incidence of Lyme disease. There are about 100 confirmed cases in California each year she said.
Fowler described the East Coast, Wisconsin and Minnesota as "high-risk" for Lyme disease while "the whole West Coast is what would be classed as a low-risk situation." He said infected ticks have been found in 42 California counties, "but at a very low prevalence in our county."
Other than people, horses and dogs are most likely to be diagnosed with Lyme disease, Fowler said, and the animals' symptoms can fit a lot of diseases.
Jackson said he had spoken to Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District was told the agency was recently called out to Rancho Murieta to collect and test ticks. None were found to have Lyme disease bacteria, Jackson said.
"We have a large deer population in Rancho Murieta without question," said Fowler. He doesn't consider it a healthy one, based on a list of conditions he's observed during the five years he's lived here. The prevalence of lame deer has a lot of possible causes, he said, some of them diseases that could get into the livestock population.
"I feel that the way to go is to find out answers, rather than guessing what's going on," he said, "and I really think that we're at that point with our deer population here in Rancho Murieta that we need to know exactly what's going on … so that we can hopefully improve the health status of the deer population here."
He proposed getting answers by killing four to six deer that had health issues and performing necropsies.
Dr. Ben Gonzales, senior wildlife veterinarian for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in his work he has encountered deer virus outbreaks in different parts of the state -- Redding, Humboldt, Sonoma. "These are typically populations where there's a lot of deer in a small amount of space," he said. "A lot of these are fed deer." In addition to virus outbreaks, he's observed a hair loss syndrome caused by lice. "These are diseases that happen when the deer density gets too high," he said. Fowler told him about the numbers of deer here and, "Based on that, I'd say there's too many deer here," Gonzales said.
Brian Patrick, Fish and Wildlife district warden for the south Sacramento County, commented that feeding deer or any big game is illegal. Gonzales explained it's illegal because of the baiting issue, and because it supports a population that can't be sustained.
Helayna Pera, wildlife biologist for Fish and Wildlife, said, "I get phone calls all the time regarding mountain lion sightings in this area all around the Cosumnes. … You're essentially attracting mountain lions by feeding deer."
"Feeding deer … is really not good for the deer population, and it's not good for the people around them," Gonzales said. He supported Fowler's suggestion to take out four to six "sickly" deer and said an expert at a state lab in Davis would evaluate the status of their health.
John Merchant, a 29-year resident, told the panel there were more deer now, and the herd had "gotten rattier and rattier over time. They do all limp, and they are full of lice." He described the issue as a "third rail": "You have one side here that wants them all exterminated and the other side that doesn't want to touch Bambi, and somewhere in the middle is probably the proper place to be. So I think it's a great discourse."
Nick Burton said shortly after moving here in 2005, his wife was stricken with a "classic case of Lyme disease. … We're not sure whether she contracted it here in Rancho Murieta, but it makes sense. Additionally, it's not just the deer. We have a huge population of other little furry creatures out here which … carry the Lyme disease bacteria." Burton said his wife went from being a marathon runner to being "homebound and disabled." He proposed culling the herd and removing brush in the common area to reduce the deer population.
RMA Director Sam Somers Sr. asked if there was a legal way to reduce herd. Fish and Wildlife representatives said the options included archery hunting.
President Jim Moore asked if Fish and Wildlife could come out and conduct a controlled hunt.
Pera said Fish and Wildlife could cull animals from the herd with RMA board approval and a proposal from the board. Gonzales said the plan would need the approval of a Fish and Wildlife "higher-up."
"We would have sharpshooters out here," he said. "These are people who really know what they're doing who would cull the deer as opposed to hunt the deer."
Pera added, "We would have law enforcement with us. We would do this discretely. We don't like it when the media comes around. That's our worst nightmare...."
Gonzales told the board, "If you perceive it as a problem, we want to help you with the problem. … How about if we just get approval from you to just take a few deer for disease diagnostics. I think it's a really big step. I think it will give us information as to the condition of the herd out here. … I think it's a very dangerous road we're on here with this overpopulation."
Fowler said, "I think that is the logical, scientific way to go about this. Let's see what we've got, let's take several deer, let's see what the Lyme disease, the tick situation is, let's see what's going on disease-wise with the deer. … I don't think anybody up here wants to eradicate the deer. Everybody enjoys having the wildlife out here. … I think that four to six animals selectively taken would provide us (with) a lot of information."
Kjemtrup advised waiting for fall, because "You're not going to find any ticks on them now."
Other matters the board considered at its monthly meeting included:
The North Gate project goes to bid Monday, General Manager Greg Vorster said. The RMA plans to award the contract for construction of the relocated gate house and redesigned entrance Sept. 15.
A letter of introduction has been sent to members about Greenfield Communications taking over operation of the RMA-owned cable TV and broadband system and installing a fiber-to-the-home upgrade. The 20-year lease begins Sept. 1, General Manager Greg Vorster reported, and at that time, the RMA cable staff will become employees of Greenfield.
A board goal-setting session has been set for 6 p.m. Aug. 26 at the RMA Building. One of the suggested goals is installation of a dock at Laguna Joaquin.
The board approved renewal of a contract for ESPN and Disney channels. Current cable TV contracts will remain in effect until the fiber-to-the-home cable system is in place, Communications chair Bob Lucas said. The existing contracts become the responsibility of Greenfield Communications when the lease agreement with RMA takes effect Sept. 1, according to Lucas and President Jim Moore.
The board approved contracts for RMA insurance coverage that total $66,516, a savings of $9,671 over last year, according to General Manager Greg Vorster.
RMA bingo will be held 1 p.m. Saturday at Summerfest.