It's tick season in Montana

Amy Quinlivan, Clark Fork Valley Press & Mineral Independent, Plains, Mont.
·8 min read

Apr. 7—Tis the season for ticks.

Around mid-March outdoor enthusiasts and recreationists start asking each other the annual question, "Have you found one yet?"

Repulsed by many, ticks are small parasitic arachnids. Ticks require blood meals, to complete their complex life cycles. Here in Montana, there are two common tick species. Both look similar but they inhabit opposite ends of the state. Dermacentor variabilis, the American dog tick, hails from eastern Montana and prefers the treeless, wide open plains.

Here in the western part of the state the Rocky Mountain wood tick reigns. It tends to be darker with a defined cream-colored collar on adult males and females. Male wood ticks will have some cream mottling on their bodies whereas females will be more solid in color. Its Latin name is Dermacentorandersoni. This species is found primarily in the Rocky Mountain region and its most frequently found during the spring and summer.

Often ticks are unknowingly acquired while explorers are passing through grassy meadows, along vegetation of stream corridors, and while scurrying through underbrush where woodland animals travel. Wood ticks aren't picky about choosing a host, and will cling onto whatever deer and elk, livestock, pet, or human that comes their way.

Communicable Disease Specialist for the Mineral County Health Department, Amy Lommen shared some tips on how to handle these tiny parasites.

"Be aware that ticks live in grassy, brushy, and wooded areas. Wearing insect repellant with 20% or more DEET, picardin, or IR3535 and wearing protective clothing are great precautionary measures." She added, "It's also highly recommended to check yourself, other family members, and pets after you've enjoyed some time outdoors. Ticks tend to burrow under the arms, ears, belly button, behind knees, between legs, around the waist, and in the hairline and scalp."

And when you spend a lot of time in the forest ticks just come with the territory. That's what Tarkio resident Doug Austin has come to accept. As an attorney during office hours, he's at his desk but when he's not you'll usually find him in the woods or on a trail. He said, "Almost every day. Most mornings before work I hike up logging roads and game trails, about 30 minutes up and 30 minutes down."

In the late 1960s and '70s Austin was a fair-weather logger in the summer months. He recalled, "I worked in various parts of Mineral County and Idaho, mostly up Fish Creek and Quartz Creek. I hooked logs and swung tongs to load logging trucks. If we broke down, I explored the mountain streams, ridges and lakes."

During that chapter of working outdoors Austin didn't contend with ticks too much because he operated during the tail end of tick season in the summer. He said, "I have gotten more acquainted with ticks in recent years. After a knee injury 23 years ago, I stopped jogging and started hiking more."

And with more time in the woods and more miles on the trails Austin has discovered that finding ticks on yourself is just something you get used to. How many you might ask? He explained, "It depends. If you are on a road or trail without tall grass or brush, you may get none. Where I go, I may get a dozen or so in an hour, and in April or May, up to 25."

Enough to make your skin crawl...you're checking that little itch you have, aren't you?

With that many ticks one has to be vigilant about removing them while outdoors and after they get off the trail. Austin offered, "If you wear light colored pants, it does not deter them, but you can see them easier. Then if you remember to look down occasionally you can flick them off." He added, "If I am home, I put them in the wood stove or flush them down the toilet. If I get bit, I gently pull them out with my fingers, as long as I do not have a cut on my finger. It is best to look yourself over good while undressed before a bath or shower."

Each spring Austin estimates that he catches a tick that's bitten or latched on to his skin about three to five times. In his lifetime though he calculates that he's found thousands of ticks on himself or on his clothing over the years. With all those encounters he has established a bit of a system for safe removal. He detailed, "In my experience they do not attach for at least 8 hours. They like to explore before they find a spot they like. So, this gives you time to remove them before they bite."

Neither the Rocky Mountain wood tick nor the American dog tick are vectors of Lyme disease. However, they do carry the rare possibility of infecting their hosts with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever and Tularemia.

Colorado tick fever is only found in the western states. There have been cases diagnosed in Montana west of the Continental Divide and in southwest and southcentral areas of the state. A person infected with CTF will have chills, headache, fever, muscular ache and general malaise within four days of the bite.

RMSP typically occurs in the south Atlantic region and is uncommon in the West. A tick carrying Rocky Mountain spotted fever must be attached to its host for at least 10 hours to transfer the disease. Symptoms of a person infected with RMSP include a severe headache, aches and pains, chills, fever and rash with red, purple and black spots around the bite area.

At the Health Department Lommen compared numbers. She detailed, "In Montana, tick-borne illnesses are quite rare, with an average of 20 cases per year. The most typical cases include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tularemia, Colorado tick fever, relapsing fever, and about half the cases each year are of Lyme disease (all acquired out of Montana)." Lommen added, "The most common symptoms of tick-borne infections include fever and chills, aches and pains, rash, and fever of varying degrees.

Although most tick-borne illnesses can be treated with antibiotics, they can be difficult to diagnose. Checking for ticks immediately following an outdoor adventure and prompt removal of attached ticks can reduce the likelihood of a tick transmitting a tick-borne illness."

Most people here with Lymes disease contracted it in the Midwest or somewhere else. Mineral County is fortunate to not have Rocky Mountain spotted ticks. In the past decade Austin has been sick a few times from tick bites, he shared, "Here we can contract Colorado Tick Fever, which is not as severe. But it does produce flu-like symptoms for a few days, so we should not take it lightly. I think I have had it a couple times in the last 10 years or so."

For Austin ticks have never deterred him from enjoying the beauty and the wilderness of Western Montana. He expressed, "We are so fortunate to live where we do. They are part of our environment and we can learn to live with them. The physical, mental and spiritual benefits are worth it."

Looking ahead to summer excursions Austin said, "My wife and I join local hikers a few times for long day hikes in the Great Burn and State line trails...anywhere from 5 to 20 miles."

The hiking group which has been sponsored by various community organizations plans to continue their treks this year under the collaboration of Jim Goss.

For those looking to get more information on upcoming hikes they can reach Goss at jgossorcreich@blackfoot.net.

And once you're on the trail, enjoy the outdoors and don't fret about ticks. Austin offered, "Expect to see them and there is no need to be afraid of them."

Lommen reiterated, "Just make a habit of checking yourself or having someone check for you when you get back. Tickborne diseases are quite rare in Montana, though they do occur. If you find a tick, use tweezers to remove it from your clothing or skin."

How to properly remove an attached tick:

Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.

Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.

After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.

AVOID folklore remedies such as "painting" the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin.

These methods are not recommended and may cause the tick to burrow deeper into the skin.

Here is a CDC link for more information about ticks: https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/index.html