As ticks move north, research funding vanishes
PAUL SMITHS — Research by Paul Smith’s College professor Lee Ann Sporn and her students shows disease-carrying ticks are continuing to become more common throughout the North Country. At the same time, her research is threatened by a lack of funding from the state and federal governments.
She had to scale back her research this summer because she had limited funding.
“I have to say it’s disappointing,” Sporn said. “Where we’d like to go back and look at data over the years and start to really study the trends and the patterns, we have some holes in the data now.”
Ticks on the rise
The research Sporn and her students have done for the state shows a tick population that is rising and spreading in nearly every way possible. While ticks used to be uncommon in the Adirondacks, they have pushed northward geographically, upward in elevation and become denser in population every year as they find new territory to survive in. Climate change is often suspected, but not confirmed, as the reason.
“This year it just seems like they’ve really become established throughout the region,” Sporn said.
Sporn said there is confirmation of ticks existing at elevations as high as 2,000 feet. This had previously existed only anecdotally, including stories from students of hers who found a few while mountain biking on Mount Pisgah this summer.
Ticks were found in an extremely high density at a site in Elizabethtown this fall, where students collected around 1,000 ticks, according to Sporn, sometimes at a rate of 80 in 10 minutes.
Sporn said as ticks find higher elevations more hospitable, they are following rivers such as the AuSable, Boquet and St. Lawrence uphill. Sporn said this is likely because rivers are typically the lowest elevations in an area, attract lots of wildlife, are humid and have more moderate temperatures in the winter.
Unfortunately, her research also shows ticks appear to be most common where humans are most common, and that they follow human trails, too.
Sporn said that her students did a study, having one person take a drag-cloth, used for collecting ticks, along the edge of a trail and having another drag further in the woods, parallel to each other. She said the cloth near the trail always turned up more ticks.
“It’s ironic that the edges of trails might be the highest-risk sites,” Sporn said.
Sporn said she is not sure why this is. It may have to do with the fact that wildlife often follow human-made trails, or maybe that there is more sunlight there.
With limited funding this summer, Sporn did a lot of tick-collecting herself, keeping the samples she and her son Jake gathered from Clinton, Franklin, Essex and St. Lawrence counties in jars of alcohol in her freezer at home.
She said her mission this summer was to go to the most high-density sites and get enough tick samples to test for diseases. While Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease, her research this year showed the emergence of two new diseases — babesiosis and anaplasmosis — as well as an increase in the Powassan virus.
Her mission this fall was to find new sites where ticks are found, to better inform heat-style maps of tick density. This is time-consuming, though.
“That’s hard to do because we can go somewhere for an hour or two and we might not find them,” Sporn said. “But then someone might call and say, ‘I was at that site, and my dog was running, and afterwards we found ticks on my dog.'”
To save time, she said she employed a citizen science initiative, allowing the public to tell her where they are finding ticks and informing her where to research. She said this method is “more sensitive.”
With assistance from the Adirondack Mountain Club, she got a message out to the public to fill out a survey with GPS coordinates and photos of where they found ticks. She received around 200 responses.
Sporn said while there were some fakes — including one in the Pacific Ocean — it is unlikely many people will be motivated to falsify tick sightings.
This fall she ran three groups with 17 students in total. One group focused on outreach and education, another ran the citizen science program, and another focused on the Elizabethtown site.
Funding woes and hopes
Sporn is in a lobbying group with 20 other New York tick researchers making a plea to the state Senate for it to reinstate funding for their research back in the 2020 budget.
Sporn’s student research for the past few years was funded by the state Senate Task Force on Lyme and other Tick Borne Diseases, and the data they gather is used by the state Department of Health.
However, that state funding disappeared last year as the Democratic Party took the majority of the state Senate. When the party majority flips, all task forces are eliminated, and the Senate has yet to reestablish a tick task force.
One million dollars in funding for Lyme disease research, including $30,000 for Paul Smith’s College’s research, was gone, and though $250,000 of that was reinstated, Sporn received none of it.
“I guess they figure, if you ask for a low amount, your work isn’t as important, which isn’t true,” Sporn said.
A grant from the private Cloudsplitter Foundation funded her research through the fall, and as advocates attempt to secure $1.5 million in funding statewide, Sporn is seeking more money for northern New York research. She has concluded that northern New York is an emerging area for ticks and the diseases they carry.
Sporn is also seeking federal assistance through the TICK Act, which U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, has spoken in favor of. The TICK Act would provide federal dollars for tick research and Sporn said she wants Stefanik to advocate for the needs of the North Country and guarantee some of that funding for research in New York’s 21st Congressional District, which spans northern New York.
Sporn said she needs money for routine monitoring, so there are no more gaps in her data.
“We have an emerging public health crisis,” Sporn said. “We are understaffed. We don’t have the resources we need to protect people.”