Deer: the scourge of NoVa. They tromp through our backyards, they crash through our windshields, they eat our shrubbery. Worse, they transport the dreaded blacklegged tick from the woods to our neighborhoods, where the ticks then hop off the deer, hop on to us and give us Lyme disease, red bull’s-eye scars and other Very Bad Things.
So Fairfax County is undertaking an innovative program to study tick infestations. They’re placing deer feeding stations at 20 points in two parks, Sully Woodlands and Hemlock Overlook. When the deer come to eat the corn at the stations, they will rub against rollers treated with a pesticide that will kill ticks. And to distinguish the treated deer from the untreated, the pesticide is colored day-glo shocking pink.
The color was Fairfax Wildlife Biologist Vicky Monroe’s idea. She said she was not influenced by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s dressing of inmates in pink underwear, or the pink jumpsuits used by a sheriff in Texas. There’s no psychological warfare at play here. It was just a cool color, Monroe said, and “we wanted something that couldn’t be found in nature, so there’s no way we could mistake them.”
The deer population explosion in Fairfax shows no signs of slowing, and that means the ticks will keep coming too.
“It’s scary,” she said. (Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that ticks transmit mad cow disease. They do not.)
One of Monroe’s main jobs is to manage the deer population in Fairfax. And there are still just way too many of them. The deer have trouble finding enough food, and Monroe recently found that five of six deer in one roundup had pneumonia. So the deer expand their territory and bring their diseases and ticks with them.
For some reason, the deer are immune to the bacteria that ticks carry and spread. In fact, if a tick lives on a deer for very long, it will expend all its bacteria in the deer and become harmless, Monroe said. But a healthy mama tick can have up to 3,000 babies, and when they reach adulthood, they can spread Lyme disease in the human population.
So Monroe, with $380,000 in funding from the Fairfax County Health Department, devised a plan to spread anti-tick pesticide [permethrin, 10 percent] on the deer. Each feeder, stocked with corn, is placed at least 100 yards from any road, is not near any children or water sources, and has a 50-acre buffer zone around it. A surveillance camera will also be stationed near each feeder.
Warning signs are placed around the feeders because the pesticide is of a higher concentration than humans or their pets should be exposed to. But Monroe said people should expect to see not only pink deer but pink squirrels and pink birds after they visit the feeders.
Then, on a couple of days every other month for the next three years, the pink deer will be harvested (or “killed,” in non-wildlife biologist terms) and autopsied. Deer organs will be tested and the remaining ticks will be sent to a lab for detailed analysis, as Monroe and her staff look for ways to disrupt the tick chain from forest to humans.
And if certain segments of the wildlife population endure humiliation at the hands of their less sartorially sensational cohorts, well, so be it.