Comment: Climate change bothers me. And you

Shelby Frink’s first tree bear. Image: Anne Proctor

By Shelby Frink

There’s nothing exotic about deer hunting when you live in a Mid-Michigan farming community.

While this might be a rite of passage for many, it wasn’t for me. I grew up preferring the comforts of life.

And the stands of trees are not comfortable.

It wasn’t until seventh grade that my family members in northern Michigan convinced me to accompany them on what was to be an extraordinary story for my hunting friends.

It was hot. Really hot. The sweat running down the sides of my body was invisible for all the diapers I wore. But the sweatshirt and jeans protected much more than thorns and broken branches.

Before leaving that morning, my cousin gave a quick lesson about ticks and how even with long sleeves I had to check my body for them.

In my 13-year-old mind, finding ticks was a side quest in a video game – nothing too important. We were looking for something much more exciting: The American Black Bear.

Shelby Frink, 13, on her first bear hunt. Image: Anne Proctor

We cleared a trail in the direction of the symphony of hunting dogs.

It took at least an hour to get to the hounds and hunters circled around a tree. We tracked the bear all morning. Ticks were the last thing on my mind.

There were victims: my cousin lost her glasses in the muddy abyss and I smelled pickled bolognese from the spilled contents in the truck.

And there were rewards: comfortably perched in a sturdy tree, a handsome black bear awaited our departure.

It was a practice run. Before the hunting season in the fall, bear hunters train the dogs in the summer to follow the scent of the bear. I tracked every training season until I was a senior in high school.

All this time I never checked for ticks. And I never had one.

Fast forward three years when I helped a college friend clean up the side of a highway in honor of her late mother. I ended up with three ticks on my back. I took them off before they could cling.

How come I’ve never seen a tick in six years of hunting through thick woods, but had three on my back after a day of highway cleaning?

Michigan’s Lower Peninsula has seen a dramatic increase in tick numbers over the past 10 to 15 years, said Howard Russell, an entomologist at Michigan State University. And it is not without consequence.

Lyme disease risk map. Image data: Michigan State University Surveillance Project and local health departments.

Blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, can transmit Lyme disease to humans, said Jean Tsao, an associate professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of Lyme disease can include fever, headache, fatigue, or a rash. If left untreated, it can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.

The US Environmental Protection Agency reports evidence that climate change is helping ticks spread to areas that were once too cold for them, increasing the risk of contracting Lyme disease.

Deer ticks thrive when temperatures and humidity rise, reports the EPA. Rising temperatures due to climate change mean an increasing range of deer tick habitats.

There’s probably no magic bullet to stopping ticks and tick disease, Tsao said.

Throwing away dead leaves and woodpiles can reduce the risk of ticks in your garden, she said. Deer hunting helps because ticks attach themselves to large animals to survive long enough to lay eggs.

That said, you would have to kill a lot of deer to affect the ticks, Tsao said. We can lay a few thousand eggs.

I often associate climate change with something harmful to the environment, economy or recreation. I never thought of it as something that can lead to the spread of deadly diseases and nasty critters.

Climate change increases people’s risk of contracting Lyme disease due to greater exposure to ticks.

Gone are the days when I could afford to be naive about the risks of ticks and Lyme disease. They were once a myth in my mind, but now they’re an occupational hazard.

There may not be a magic bullet, but we can certainly use several normal ones to eliminate their hosts.

Or better yet, we can hunt down the root problem of climate change.

Shelby Frink is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo. This essay is part of a series on the impact of climate change.

Teresa H. Sadler