With funding for the Island’s tick-borne illness reduction initiative soon to dry up, local health agents and others face an uphill battle in stemming the advance of lone star ticks, which have gained a foothold in at least three Island towns.

Biologist and unofficial tick czar Richard Johnson recently documented the presence of lone star ticks on six out of 11 properties in Chilmark, indicating a wider range than he first suspected last summer, when he found a large number of larvae on Chappaquiddick — proof that the species was breeding on the Island — and later confirmed reports of larvae in Aquinnah. He said the Chilmark sightings this year may indicate an eastward advance of the species across the Island.

Lone star ticks started out around South Carolina, and have moved northward, possibly as a result of climate change, and have already infested many coastal areas in the region, including Long Island and Cuttyhunk. Adult females have a characteristic white dot on their backs, hence the name.

Mr. Johnson found only a few of the ticks at each of the sites in Chilmark, but it was enough to redraw the battle lines. “I have to admit I’m somewhere between disturbed and alarmed about finding that many,” he told the Gazette. “It’s looking to me like they have spread farther on the Island than what I thought at the end of last year.”

The range may be farther still, as reliable sources have reported sightings in every Island town, Mr. Johnson said. But one tick at a time wasn’t much to go on, he added, and he would prefer to see the ticks firsthand before drawing any conclusions.

Lone star ticks carry several diseases, including tularemia, which is potentially fatal, and STARI (southern tick associated rash illness), which has symptoms similar to Lyme disease. Edgartown health agent Matt Poole, who is helping oversee Mr. Johnson’s work as part of the Island initiative, said it was likely too soon for the population here to have infected enough mammals to establish what he called an infection reservoir. But that will likely change.

“They seem to be an established population,” Mr. Poole said. “And science says that it’s only a matter of time before they start conveying their own package of infections. It’s still early in their residency here, but it looks like we are going to be finding them in more than pockets.”

Mr. Johnson has explored a number of possible responses, including controlled burns, brush cutting and feeding stations for deer that cause them to brush up against rollers doused in a tick toxin. But he has also said that lone star ticks appear less affected by brush cutting than other tick species, and that controlled burns would be risky in the affected areas. He points to the regulatory challenges associated with the feeding stations.

“Nobody has a good answer,” he said, although he sees promise in the idea of culling the Island’s deer population. “I personally believe that’s our best chance,” he said, noting that lone star ticks, like other tick species, depend on deer for food and mobility.

The initial goal would be to open up more private land to bow hunting in the fall, since hunters and biologists know those areas provide a safe haven for the herd. “Beyond that, I honestly haven’t figured it out,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’ve got to do something bigger than that, and I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to be.”

He said deer culling has had limited success in the region, and reducing the number of ticks in a given area does not necessarily mean fewer infections among humans. But he also noted time is running out.

A five-year, $250,000 grant administered through the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in 2010 helped launch the tick-borne illness reduction initiative, and has already been extended one year. Mr. Poole expected the fieldwork to continue until next summer, but after that the future is unclear.

“Unless we figure out some funding mechanism, I probably won’t be doing this again next year,” said Mr. Johnson. A permanent tick program on the Island, including widespread yard assessments and control measures, would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 per year.

The next step will likely be setting a course for action, despite the lack of long-term data, which Mr. Johnson acknowledge as a sort of catch-22. “What I’m really collecting is the baseline data that’s going to allow us to look at it going forward,” he said of the tick invasion, which could have begun anytime in the last 40 years. “The problem is that if we treat this as baseline data and wait 10 years, it may be way too late.”

“We need to take action,” he added. “And once we have an action plan, I think there is a good chance the financial support will be there.”

Lone star tick sightings can be reported to Richard Johnson at 508-693-1893 or ticksmv@gmail.com.