COURTESY OF BING IMAGES
Possums, like these babies shown above, have been called the unsung heros in the Lyme disease epidemic
“In staggering numbers, opossums up removing or eating as much as 96 percent of all ticks that land on them. … Possums are the unsung heroes in the Lyme disease epidemic.“ ~ Rick Ostfeld, Cary Institute
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has invested great effort in recruiting and training thousands of new trappers and hunters with $5 license incentives. They’re destroying Wisconsin’s indigenous species like beavers, muskrat, foxes, bobcats, otters, coyotes, raccoons and opossums.
We never seem to learn from history. Market trapping and hunting back in the 1850s, when wildlife was abundant and humans much less so, almost destroyed wildlife even then.
Coyotes, wolves, foxes, bobcats and opossums are exactly the species that control rodents and buffer humans from zoonotic diseases. Diseases that are transmitted by animals to humans have increased four-fold in the past 50 years. Climate change and destruction of biodiversity, animal agriculture, hunting and trapping, and human overpopulation have disrupted natural systems to such an extent that mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses (Zika and Lyme disease are two good examples) endanger human health and cause great suffering.
Disease ecologist Rick Ostfeld says that Lyme disease should be tackled in part by targeting mice.
The other major host of the Lyme-bearing tick are deer. Ostfeld argues that you do not need many deer to maintain a large tick population. Along with permitting the unlimited trapping of natural predators like coyotes, the DNR keeps deer populations artificially high.
There are health consequences.
“Mice, like deer, flourish in fragmented woodlands — in part because predators such as foxes and opossums (and coyotes) get displaced (and trapped or hunted out). Ticks then thrive on the rodents, which are poor groomers. Studies suggest that larval ticks have a 50 percent chance of surviving when they feed on mice, but only a 3.5 percent chance on opossums,” Ostfeld is quoted as saying in an August 2015 article in Nature.
Ostfeld’s studies further suggest that fragmentation of forests increase the risk of Lyme disease transmission but that healthy biodiversity within forests can serve as a buffer. He explains that the white-footed mice flourish in forest fragments after mammal populations are destroyed.
Writing for Project Muse, Scott R. Granter, Aaron Bernstein and Ostfeld put it this way: ”Here, we use Lyme disease as a model to illustrate how loss of biodiversity in the community of vertebrates may lead to increased transmission of zoonotic pathogens in humans. We also illustrate how preserving biodiversity has the potential to reduce the prevalence of human infectious disease more generally.”
My own experience affirms those conclusions. When I moved to my rural, largely forested 72 acres in 2003, I had coyotes singing in the woods nightly, a beaver family in the creek, and foxes with their kits down by the barn. Over the past four years, the coyotes, foxes and beavers have been killed out by hunters and trappers around my property. I see no opossums. This past four years, coinciding with DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s push for more indiscriminate trapping, the mice population has become an infestation, driving my tenants out of their lease two months early last winter. Even when I had 46 goats and sheep living here, the coyotes never bothered them over a five-year period. But the coyotes kept the mice in check.
Now I have extremely painful chronic Lyme disease. Fatigue, extreme joint pain, sleep disruption, and knowing that this bacteria can target the brain and heart are stressful and debilitating realities. My new tenant contracted Lyme disease when she was 15. Now 24, she has been hospitalized for seizures and inability to move. The woman staffing the Briggsville voting booth has a relative with Lyme disease. When the Restore staff picked up my donations this morning, the older gentleman said he has Lyme disease.
University of New Haven researchers, as reported in U.S. News and World Report, determined that Lyme disease-causing Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria produces a “biofilm” that makes it up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics than other bacteria.
A Dutch study concluded in March 2016 that long-term antibiotics do not ease chronic Lyme disease. Catching the disease early is key to using antibiotics effectively. Untreated for a few months, it goes chronic and there is no proven remedy.
And there is no vaccine to protect us.
The DNR’s policies are severely endangering citizen health. Trapping and hunting must be ended now.
Protecting the environment, animals and people can no longer just be addressed by focusing only on the human population. We are dependent on the delicate balance of other beings as they interact with each other and us.
When you see that opossum pretending to be dead on the road, stop and move her to safety. Cherish our wildlife. They can save us if we protect them.
Only an unprecedented surge of citizen activism demanding DNR reform will save our wildlife and ultimately save ourselves. Where is the outrage?
This article was originally published in the Madison CapTimes on August 14, 2016.