A team of University of Maine researchers has been awarded $1.17 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and test land management practices to protect Maine forest workers from exposure to tick-borne diseases.

The three-year project, “Developing adaptive forest management practices to mitigate impacts of climate change on human health,” is being led by Allison Gardner, an assistant professor of arthropod vector biology, and Carly Sponarski, an assistant professor of human dimensions of wildlife and fisheries conservation.

Other UMaine researchers involved in the study are Jessica Leahy, a professor of human dimensions of natural resources, and Anne Lichtenwalner, a professor, veterinarian, and director of the Animal Health Laboratory. Laura Kenefic, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, also is working on the project.

Why this is important

Maine has experienced a fivefold increase in Lyme disease cases over the past decade, likely due to climate change and land use change, according to the researchers. The increase in cases, combined with the high percentage of nonindustrial private land ownership in southern Maine, they say, provides an urgent need and a unique socio-ecological context to investigate the effects of forest management on infectious disease transmission.

Forest workers are at particularly high risk of contracting tick-borne illnesses due to their frequent exposure to ticks.

The team plans to conduct applied ecological research to understand the impact of timber harvesting on the risk of exposure to tick-borne diseases. They also plan to conduct applied social science research to understand the economic, environmental and production factors that influence private forest landowners’ decision-making processes related to land management and tick-borne disease prevention.

By integrating natural and social science research, extension and education, the team aims to develop and test adaptive land management practices to protect private forest owners, foresters, and loggers against exposure to tick-borne diseases.

They also hope their recommendations will manage the spread and persistence of tick-borne diseases in Maine’s forests.

“A lot of land is privately owned in Maine, creating a unique context for large landscape management practice,” Sponarski says. “We need to work together with private landowners to come to creative solutions on how to mitigate disease spread and keep people healthy.”

Using science to guide best practices

“Our forest management decisions can have dramatic effects on the abundance and behavior of vertebrate hosts of tick-borne pathogens and also the abiotic conditions that influence tick survival during the large proportion of the tick life cycle spent off-host,” Gardner says. “Because our state is dominated by forest land cover, it is important that Mainers understand the numerous ecosystem services provided by healthy forests, including buffering zoonotic disease transmission.”

Results of the three-year project will be used to inform practical recommendations to mitigate the impacts of climate change on tick-borne disease transmission that are based on scientific data and compatible with landowners’ economic interests.

Other long-term goals of the study include understanding how land management can alter infectious disease transmission in the context of an urgent public health problem in the country; analyzing and forecasting how landowner decision-making may alter risk of human exposure to infectious disease on the front lines of climate change; and developing place-based, interdisciplinary education models to engage students and forest workers in promoting resilient agroecosystems and protecting community health while sustaining a robust forest product supply chain.