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Deer tick discovery confirms existence of the parasite in N.D.

I've had a bad case of the creepy-crawlies this week, and it probably won't be going away anytime soon. Turns out, I might be one of the first people in North Dakota to find a deer tick crawling on them. At least it wasn't stuck. The discovery cu...

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I've had a bad case of the creepy-crawlies this week, and it probably won't be going away anytime soon.

Turns out, I might be one of the first people in North Dakota to find a deer tick crawling on them. At least it wasn't stuck.

The discovery culminated a weird series of events that started Monday, when I made some calls to health authorities in Minnesota and North Dakota for a story about deer ticks, the nasty little critters that cause Lyme disease. Deer ticks, which are about one-eighth to one-fourth the size of the common wood tick we typically encounter in this part of the world, are moving north and west.

The story ran in Wednesday's paper.

As we reported, deer ticks once were most commonly associated with forested areas farther south and east in Minnesota. No more. Today, deer ticks have become commonplace in areas near Bemidji and as far north as southeastern Manitoba.

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In researching the story, I heard from sources in North Dakota that deer tick encounters west of the Red mostly have been anecdotal. The state has documented only about 30 cases of Lyme disease, total, in the past five years.

That's miniscule compared with Minnesota, which averages about 1,000 cases of Lyme disease annually.

In an effort to learn more, though, Tracy Miller, senior epidemiologist for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the agency is coordinating a survey with UND and North Dakota State University this summer to sample areas across the state for the presence of deer ticks.

Any ticks they find then will be tested to see if they carry Lyme or other diseases.

I had never encountered a deer tick -- that I knew of, at least -- but the critters were certainly on my mind Tuesday afternoon when I ventured west to Turtle River State Park to chase rainbow trout with Steve Crandall, the park manager.

We had a great afternoon on the river, and you can read about it elsewhere in today's Outdoors pages.

We'd been off the water about half an hour and were relaxing on Crandall's patio when I looked down and saw a tiny black tick crawling on my pants. I always try to wear light-colored clothing when venturing into areas known for wood ticks because they're easier to spot.

This was too dark, and way too small, to be a wood tick. Crandall said he'd never seen anything like it at the park, either.

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Just my luck, I'd pick up a deer tick less than a day after writing about how they were moving north and west. Now my skin was really crawling.

Still, we weren't sure the parasite was indeed a deer tick. So, after killing it in rubbing alcohol, I photographed it alongside a common wood tick and sent it off to a handful of experts to get their thoughts.

Dave Neitzel of the Minnesota Department of Health was the first to reply. The smaller tick "most likely" was an adult deer tick, he said, although the photo was too dark for him to see all of the tick parts necessary to confirm the species.

I also contacted Nathan Russart, one of the university students working on the North Dakota tick study. He, too, said he couldn't say for sure by looking at the picture, but since I'd saved the tick, he stopped by the office to pick it up.

His assessment: "That definitely was a deer tick," he said.

Crandall said a grad student from the University of Illinois did a tick study at the park five years ago and found no deer ticks. Russart, by comparison, found two deer ticks in the park during a quick check earlier this month.

How abundant the deer ticks are remains to be seen, but one thing's for certain: If a few of them are crawling around Turtle River State Park, they're most likely in other forested areas of northeastern North Dakota, as well.

That's cause for concern, but no cause for panic.

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As for me, I'll be investing in a bottle of Permethrin, a repellant that's not for use on skin but keeps ticks at bay for several weeks when sprayed on clothing. Best of all, it even kills the little buggers.

We'll be following the North Dakota tick study as it unfolds this summer, but my discovery this week disproves the long-held view that deer ticks don't exist west of the Red.

They do.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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