Army to study impact of controlled burns on tick population

The flames of a prescribed burn work their way through brush on an APG test range, Jan. 26, 2017. The road, seen in the foreground, serves as a firebreak helping to control and contain the fire to only the area deemed appropriate by Aberdeen Test Center. | U.S. Army photo by Amanda Rominiecki, USAG APG

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Controlled burns may have an interesting unrelated benefit for Team APG: tick control. The idea is so promising that the Army’s Public Health Center is in the midst of a several-year study to determine the effectiveness of controlled burns on reducing tick bites and tick-borne disease transmission on APG.

The Defense Department’s Human Tick Test Kit Program, or HTTKP, operates out of the Tick-Borne Disease Lab on APG South (Edgewood). For more than 20 years, the Army has identified and tested ticks removed from military personnel through this program. They have tested more than 55,000 ticks removed from personnel at more than 100 military installations.

According to Dr. Robyn Nadolny, a biologist working in the Tick-Borne Disease Lab, long-term prescribed burning has been shown to significantly reduce ticks, particularly lone star and blacklegged ticks, at sites in Georgia and Florida. Lone star and blacklegged ticks account for 80 percent of the ticks submitted for testing by APG personnel.

Because Aberdeen Test Center and the APG Garrison have plans to conduct controlled burns on an annual basis, it provides an excellent, low-cost way for APHC to determine if prescribed burning is effective at reducing ticks on military installations.

“Ticks will be identified to species, counted, and tested for pathogens,” Nadolny explained. “Changes in tick abundance, tick species composition, and pathogen prevalence will be monitored over time to determine if there are differences between burned and unburned habitats, or if there is an overall change in the ticks submitted to the HTTKP from APG personnel.”

TBDL personnel will methodically collect ticks twice a year in select paired burned and nearby unburned habitats, as well as two unburned sites to serve as controls.

The study will also provide the HTTKP with the opportunity to compare new data with a similar survey of ticks in the environment conducted in the mid-1990s.

This will “enable comparisons to be made over several decades at APG in order to see how ticks in the environment have changed and to determine if the ticks submitted to the HTTKP result in an over or under-reporting of pathogen infection levels in the tick populations on post,” Nadolny said.

The lab anticipates that prescribed burning will reduce the risk of tick bites and tick-borne disease transmission to APG personnel working in and around the burned test ranges.

“If prescribed burning is found to be an effective tool to reduce tick populations, tick bites, and tick-borne disease on APG, other military installations can adopt the practice to mitigate TBD risk,” she said.

By Amanda Rominiecki, APG News