The Martha’s Vineyard tick-borne illness reduction initiative has run out of funds, and barring an influx of money will have to shut down after this summer, field biologist and program director Richard Johnson has confirmed.

Mr. Johnson said the decision to shutter the program comes just as recent yard surveys have shown that the Island is set to have its worst tick season on record. Although it’s a refrain the Vineyard has heard countless times before, the alarming proliferation of the diminutive and dangerous arachnids, combined with the lack of funds to combat tick-borne illnesses, have left Mr. Johnson worried about the future of an Island that he believes is already in crisis.

“We have enough money to make it through the end of August, but I’m working on the assumption that we’ll be shutting down the program,” Mr. Johnson said. “I haven’t had much luck fundraising. So I’m going to spend it out. And I’m not sure what to do.”

Quick Guide to Ticks on Martha's Vineyard.

The program began in 2010 with the financial support of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. As part of its $50 million new building, the hospital was required by the state to make monetary contributions to health-based programs in the Island community. A five-year mini-grant was awarded to the boards of health for a tick-borne illness reduction initiative. The goals of the initiative included combatting the Island’s ever-growing deer population and developing more educational outreach. Mr. Johnson’s program grew from there.

Over the past decade, he has collected and mapped tick data through hundreds of yard surveys, as well as conducting a comprehensive Islandwide public health campaign to inform residents about tick-borne illness and prevention. The Island tick initiative has also made inroads into curbing the deer population, including working with landowners to expand hunting grounds on formerly inaccessible properties.

But all the programs are impossible without proper funding. The money from the hospital has since dried up, and Mr. Johnson, who has devoted much of the past 10 years to the initiative at long, often pro-bono hours, said he has struggled to find benefactors to support the program. In part he believes that’s because the initiative is focused on broad-scale prevention rather than short-term answers.

“I can’t offer a quick, easy solution,” he said. “I’m saying . . . it’s going to take time. People don’t want to hear that. They want to hear results.”

According to Sam Telford, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts University who has extensively studied tick-borne illnesses, Dukes County consistently ranks among the top 10 counties in the country for incidence of Lyme disease — a bacterial tick-borne illness that is transmitted to humans through deer tick bites. But because Lyme disease cannot be transmitted between people, it does not make the priority list for CDC funding, Mr. Johnson said.

“The CDC says because they deal with epidemic diseases, and because it’s not contagious person-to-person, they don’t see it as a big issue. And yet, they sure jumped on Zika,” he said.

There also is no state funding available for the program, and while the town boards of health have pledged approximately $15,000 for this year, Mr. Johnson said it will only be enough to sustain him through September. Over the past nine years, the program has spent $270,000.

“That’s about $30,000 per year,” Mr. Johnson said.

He also cited a fundraising tension between those who want funds to treat so-called chronic Lyme — a term used to describe a variety of illnesses caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi — and those who want money for prevention.

For Mr. Johnson, understanding the efforts to combat the spread of Lyme disease through deer population control begins with an understanding of invertebrate biology. The deer tick has a two-year life cycle, during which it passes through a larval, nymph and adult stage. Although it can also feed on mice and other small rodents, the hardy, poppy-seed sized invertebrate gets its name because the females will parasitize their preferred host — deer — for about a week, feeding on what’s called a blood meal before they overwinter in the forest floor. The next spring they lay their eggs, with the nymphs crawling out of the leaf litter onto new hosts.

The trouble begins when those new hosts happen to be humans.

“If you get rid of all the deer, you get rid of the deer ticks,” Mr. Johnson said. But the process of reducing the deer herd is gradual, he said.

Perhaps ironically, there is evidence of progress in the latest numbers after some property owners agreed to expand hunting privileges on their land. From 2002 to 2015, the Vineyard checked in an average of 625 deer per year. In 2016, when the incentives started, the number jumped to 764. In 2017, there were 844 deer taken. Last year, the number was 900.

Mr. Johnson said this kind of sustained increase in the hunting numbers represents a real trend, not simply year-to-year variation.

“The hunting numbers are going up,” he said. “But we don’t know how many deer there are.”

According to estimates from deer biologist David Stainbrook, the Island has approximately 40 deer per square mile, with about 75 square miles of habitable terrain. The goal is to have about 12 to 18 per square mile. Not only does Mr. Johnson lack the funds to reduce the deer population; he lacks the funds to properly count it as well.

“We have a long way to go,” he said.

Meanwhile, the tick situation is even more dire. Although experts say every year is a bad year for ticks on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Johnson had an addendum for 2019 after conducting a number of early spring yard surveys.

“This year . . . is a really bad, terrible, horrible, no good year for ticks. It’s really something. For all three species,” he said.

Those species are deer ticks, dog ticks, and lone-star ticks. Although deer ticks are the only ones that carry Lyme, the larger dog ticks are responsible for a disease called tularemia that killed an Island resident last fall. And lone star ticks can transmit diseases like ehrlichiosis, rickettsia, and the south tick associated rash illness (STARI).

And while less is known about the lone star tick, identified by the white dot found on the female’s back and its speedy movements, Mr. Johnson said the once-rare critter seen only in the most remote corners of Chappaquiddick and Aquinnah has since become pervasive. In 2017, Mr. Johnson conducted a yard survey at a small home on Chappaquiddick, sweeping tall grasses and deer trails for the pesky biters. That year he found one lone star tick. In 2018, he found two. This summer, he found 75. At a home near Long Point in West Tisbury — normally dog tick territory — Mr. Johnson found 190 lone star nymphs.

“It’s much worse than what I could have imagined,” the biologist said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They were crawling on the guys. And there were so many and so fast . . . Certainly 80 per cent of the places we’ve gone this year we found lone star ticks. We found them almost everywhere we go. Mostly one or two. But the places where we found one or two a year ago, we are finding 22.”

The growth in the presence of ticks isn’t limited to the lone stars, either. Mr. Johnson said he found 50 deer ticks on properties where he once found 25. And then just this past week, he found 70 deer ticks in a person’s yard in Vineyard Haven — an area where he rarely expects to find any substantial tick presence. He said numbers of dog ticks have increased as well.

Because ticks have withstood frosty winter conditions for millions of years, Mr. Johnson said this year’s warm winter most likely wasn’t responsible for the particularly bad season. Rather, he suspected the recent rainy and cool weather had prompted large numbers of ticks to molt later in the year. At least, that’s what he hopes is happening.

“It’s temperature-dependent,” Mr. Johnson said. “Instead of happening gradually, I think all of a sudden it’s gotten warm and boom, everybody changed and came out at once.”

He said while it is disheartening to see ticks in such large numbers, he felt the initiative’s work has led to increased awareness and knowledge about ticks and the microbial diseases they transmit. He plans to continue public presentations as part of his Vision fellowship for another year, and continue to tirelessly perform yard surveys throughout the summer with the help of his two interns — or as long as the money lasts. It may be his last chance.

“I’m encouraging people, if they’re thinking about doing yard surveys, they should get a hold of us soon and do it this year,” Mr. Johnson said. “Because there may not yard surveys next year.”

A donation button is available on the tick initiative’s webpage. Mr. Johnson also said interested parties could reach out to him directly at rwilcoxjohnson@yahoo.com.