The 2012 deer hunting season ended one half hour after sunset on December 31 to the echoing booms of hunters discharging their one-shot muzzle loaders in the woods. It was a fitting salute to another season past.
My unofficial tally for the approximately three-week black powder season is 78 deer. By contrast, Island hunters took 124 deer in 2011, a record year for the archery, shotgun and black powder categories.
What accounts for the drop? There may be several answers that include a reduction in the Island’s deer herd, one of the goals of state wildlife managers, environmental factors, and hunter effort.
Acorns carpeted the woodlands this fall which meant that deer did not have to travel far from bedding areas to feed. Deer that travel provide a pattern that hunters can use to their advantage.
Eyeing both sides of the road to avoid a bumper ornament, I seldom saw a deer while driving from my home in Vineyard Haven to Chilmark to take a morning stand. Some years, when the deer are hungry and on the move, I might see five or six on my drive.
The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) considers hunting, particularly shotgun season, the most efficient tool for managing the state’s deer herd. Public health officials, and more and more property owners, welcome any effort to reduce deer as a way to reduce the incidence of tick-borne diseases.
Over the years, DFW has increased the state’s archery, shotgun, and black powder seasons, and the daily bag limits. Hunters on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket can pretty much shoot as many does as they want.
It is difficult to say if all the changes have made a significant dent in the deer population. Development has allowed deer to find comfortable sanctuaries between houses.
The last week of the season, I helped a friend track a deer he had shot. Our tortured, ultimately unsuccessful three-hour path following drops of blood took us through briars, brush, and swamp in the Spring Point subdivision in Chilmark.
Spring Point residents do not allow hunting of any kind, and the caretaker is vigilant about the rules. To avoid any confrontation or misunderstandings, I called the communication center so they would know why two men in hunter orange were crawling around in the underbrush.
Every piece of ground we covered revealed signs of deer — tracks, scrapes, rubs and droppings. It was pretty clear to me that Spring Point provides prime deer habitat. Particularly during hunting season when deer move from human pressure, the property is a large sanctuary (tick reservoir) where deer are safe.
By most accounts, 2012 was a good, not great hunting season. It would have been hard to top the 2011 season, when a lack of acorns had deer on the move. Fair weather and plenty of deer helped push the shotgun season to a record total of 454, a 41 percent increase over 2010. In total, Island hunters took 792 deer, a 39 percent increase over 2010 and a new Island record.
Luck and hard work
I know hunters who felt lucky to get one deer and others who shot more than a dozen. Not that it is easy. Everyone gets lucky, but the hunters who succeed year after year work hard to fill the freezer. They scout before the season begins, put their time in once it starts, and shoot straight, like Brian Welch of Oak Bluffs.
An expert archer, Brian is one of the anchor men for a gang of experienced Island hunters led by Vincent Maciel of West Tisbury that have proved to be very efficient over the years at killing deer. The men know just how to push properties to drive deer to waiting standers.
Brian told me he shot one buck and seven does over the course of the season. I suspect he had several assists during shotgun.
Brian shares his venison with Brian Athearn of West Tisbury, who provides him with use of a walk-in cooler and processing equipment. He also shares the bounty with friends, and in a very typical Island arrangement, trades venison for scallops with an Island fisherman.
“Which makes my wife very happy,” Brian said.
Brian, a builder, said he hunted most every day he had a chance and on some days when he should have attended to business. It provides a chance to be outdoors in the woods and unwind from life’s everyday irritations.
“It’s peaceful, I sit in the woods, and every now and then a deer comes walking by,” he said.
During the archery season, he is just as likely to let a deer walk as he is to shoot it, knowing full well that letting an arrow fly is only the start of the hunt. Shotgun week, he and the crew he hunts with are all business.
“In some of the areas where I hunt with my friends with shotguns, we pretty much clean them up,” Brian said. “We go back in there at the end of the season, and there is nothing in there because we’ve killed them all.”
He explained that for many of his friends, shotgun week is the only chance to hunt and put venison in the freezer. “They are looking to get meat out of the deal,” Brian said. “When I’m bowhunting, it is a little different story. I am more willing to let a deer walk because if I shoot it, then I’ve got to track it, then I’ve got to go check it in and hang it. And it takes up a good part of my day when I don’t necessarily have the time to do that.”
During shotgun week, he and his friends take the week off. The focus is on killing deer, and they are very good at it. In 2011, the gang took about 60 deer. This season the gang of about a dozen men took 32.
Brian said one change he has seen over the years is the loss of property available to drive. Increased development and homeowners that stay through the shoulder season have reduced the areas open to pushing deer during shotgun.
“Some of these places, you just can’t go in with a group of guys anymore,” he said.
But it is not just about killing deer. The camaraderie of deer camp is part of the fun. Early each morning he and his friends meet for breakfast at Vincent Maciel’s house in West Tisbury and plan the hunt. They hunt hard all day and at the end of the day, they gather for chili or stew that Vincent’s wife Heather cooks up and recount the day’s events. “Fill your belly, tell some jokes. That’s more fun sometimes than anything else,” Brian said.
Earlier this year, DFW deer project leader David Stainbrook told me that deer population growth rates can exceed 30 percent annually. DFW estimates there are 40 to 50 deer per square mile on the Vineyard. It is a number that makes some Island hunters howl, particularly if they have not seen a deer.
While checking in a doe I shot during shotgun season at the State Forest check station, I asked DFW forester Brian Holt Hawthorne for an explanation of how they arrived at that number and why some hunters shoot no deer.
In an email, Brian described the calculations.
“The area of the towns on Martha’s Vineyard is about 93 square miles, according to MassGIS. The exact size depends on how you measure the coastline and small islands, so let’s approximate the total area as just under 100 square miles. There are 47 square miles of forested habitat on the Vineyard, so let’s call that approximately 50 square miles of deer habitat. A square mile is 640 acres.
“DFW’s deer population model, based on the number, age, and sex of the deer taken during the hunting harvest, estimates a density of 40-50 deer per square mile of habitat. That means that prior to the beginning of the deer hunting season, there would be a total of 2,000 to 2,500 deer on the Island. This is a range that varies by time of year and food availability. The actual number could be lower than 2,000 or higher, but let’s do some calculations using 2,000 deer.
“If you divide the number of acres by the number of deer, it means that before the start of the deer hunting season, there would be one deer for every 16 acres of forested habitat. This also means for every acre on which you find a deer, there are 15 forested acres with no deer. Of course, deer are not spread evenly across every acre of land on the Vineyard. Some forested areas are not good deer habitat, and deer are often clustered in groups. If there are four deer grouped together on one acre, that means there could be almost 60 forested acres with no deer at all, and the average would still come out to one deer every 16 acres (or 40 deer per square mile) of forested habitat.
“The number of deer taken on the Island during the annual archery, shotgun, and muzzleloader hunting seasons varies from year to year, but usually exceeds 500 deer, so the total deer population and the number of deer per square mile by the end of the hunting season are reduced proportionally.”
Put that in your freezer.