My first destination in Montana was Hamilton, home of Rocky Mountain Labs, where in the early part of the 20th century, researchers unraveled the mystery of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The fever, or black measles, plagued Bitterroot residents, killing 17 in 1901. Infections occurred only on the valley’s west side, where winter snowpack was greatest. One early myth was that the disease was contracted by drinking early spring snowmelt. Scientists at the labs eventually determined the disease was spread by the bite of Rocky Mountain wood ticks, which emerged as the snow receded.
A lab building was later constructed in the 1920s, east of the Bitterroot River in Hamilton. The river was the dividing line between the western hot zone and the fever-free east valley. Town residents sued to stop construction, but were unsuccessful. As a concession, a small moat was dug around the property to prevent the escape of any disease-carrying ticks.
As a newcomer in the 1990s, I was warned about ticks. The impact of those deaths decades earlier lingered in the psyche of valley residents. It was a spring worry, I was told. Once the snowmelt moved to the higher elevations, tick concerns eased.
That might explain the drinking-snowmelt myth. The legend got the timing right, though not the vector.
That springtime tick fear stays with me. I only worry about them in the early part of the season, when the weather is cool. That changed this July when I woke to the sensation of something crawling up my arm. In a panicked sleep state I grabbed the crawling thing and set it on the nightstand. I turned on the light and was horrified to see a tick.
My English setter Doll usually sleeps at the foot of my bed. We’d recently been out running in what seemed particularly untick-like habitat: dry, sagebrush country where I’d been surprised, and pleased, when she pointed a covey of Huns. The birds were young and struggled to fly across a narrow river canyon to safety.
But that crawly thing Doll picked up freaked me out. She got an unexpected bath at 3 a.m.
Ticks are more common in the spring, when it’s humid, but the season lasts through summer. These arachnids can be active until fall, and they don’t necessarily die when frost hits. Some ride out winter embedded in elk and moose. Others survive in the duff beneath the snow.
A few weeks after my night of terror, Doll and I were scouting some choice pheasant habitat along a small river. A few days later, while scratching her ears, I felt the nub of an embedded tick, then another.
Tick removal is a straightforward endeavor. Get some fine-pointed tweezers and grasp the blood sucker as close to the skin as possible, pulling the tick out with even, steady pressure. Don’t twist or turn the tick, and also, don’t succumb to folk remedies such as covering it in Vaseline or holding a lit match to it’s abdomen. These “tricks” make it more likely the tick will puke up its stomach contents before detaching, spreading disease.
I learned this summer that those tick lessons from my early Montana friends, while useful in the Bitterroot, aren’t universal. The time to take extra tick precautions extends into summer and even the warmer months of fall. And if you run hunting dogs in southern or coastal states, it’s a year-round problem.
The keys to crawly-critter combat are regular dog and handler inspections, baths after runs in the kind of weedy, nasty places ticks, and birds, seem to love, and anti-tick meds for your pooch.
The role ticks play in the spread of disease is no longer a mystery. The time for caution, however, is year round.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.
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