For Martha’s Vineyard hunters, the start of the 2013 Massachusetts deer hunting season on Monday, October 21 brings the prospect of fresh venison in the freezer and enjoyable days spent in the autumn woods. Public health officials also welcome the season as an effective tool in the effort to control the Island’s deer population, seen as a major factor in the high incidence of tick-borne diseases.
Island deer face no natural predators and wildlife scientists have yet to find an effective means of introducing contraception into the wild. Deer provide a major blood meal for deer ticks at a critical stage of the insect’s two-year life cycle. While factors such as weather and habitat can affect tick numbers — moisture and heavy brush are optimum conditions for tick survival — more deer equal more ticks, scientists say.
The six-week archery season that begins this month will inaugurate a major change in how the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) monitors hunting activity. With the exception of shotgun season, in 2013 hunters will not have to transport their animal to an official check station, but will have the option to check in deer online. The one exception is to allow the division to collect biological data about the health of the herd.
Online checking is particularly good news for Island hunters who have often found it inconvenient during working hours to transport a deer to one of the two Island check stations with fixed hours, Larry’s Tackle in Edgartown and the Wampanoag Natural resources department. Hunters without access to a computer will still have the option of bringing a deer to a check station.
Information regarding the new system is available at the new DFW website. According to information posted on the website, hunters who want to check in a deer must first log in to MassFishHunt with their Customer ID number, the number he or she receives when purchasing a license online, and answer a series of questions. The hunter receives a confirmation number that he on the tag all hunters are required to attach to a deer immediately after it is shot. This is the official seal and takes the place of the traditional metal tags. All tags with a confirmation number must be attached within 48 hours of harvest.
Wildlife managers say that good management decision-making relies on accurate harvest data. With no requirement to physically bring an animal to a check station, the new system will rely on the cooperation of hunters.
Harvest dropped in 2012
DFW deer project leader David Stainbrook reported that licensed hunters harvested a total of 11,022 white-tailed deer during the combined 2012 seasons. In 2012, Island hunters took 610 deer, the majority of those with shotguns. That figure represents a significant drop over the 2011 season when Island hunters shot 792 deer.
By season, Island hunters took 170 deer during the six-week archery season in 2012, compared to the 214 deer they took in 2011; 356 deer during the two-week shotgun season compared to 454 in 2011; and 84 deer during the approximately three-week primitive firearms season compared to 124 deer in 2011.
In addition to the drop in harvest, as a percentage, there was a significant decrease in the harvest of does versus bucks. In 2011, Island hunters took 277 adult males, 416 does and 99 button bucks (immature male deer without antlers). In 2012, they took 250 adult males, 277 does and 83 button bucks.
No clear trend
It is not clear if the drop in the 2011 record-setting doe harvest was related to hunter effort or success in the state’s effort to put a dent in the Island deer herd. Massachusetts wildlife managers divide the state into a series of zones and allocate the number of doe tags in each zone based on deer herd numbers.
Hunters in some western zones where deer are not plentiful must enter a lottery for a doe tag. On Martha’s Vineyard, doe tags are available for the asking. Mr. Stainbrook cautioned against reading too much into one year’s data.
“So many things are at play with the islands that the year to year variability can be quite high,” Mr. Stainbrook said in an email to The Times. Referring to a graph of harvest by sex over the years, he said, “You see that 2011 was a higher than average year for the Vineyard (actually a record high female harvest). Maybe it was high enough to start the trend of decreasing density, maybe not. We will see what harvest is like this coming season and will have a better idea of the trend.”
Mr. Stainbrook said that hunter effort (number of hunters and time spent hunting) can play a big role in the Island harvest. “Just because we see a drop in the total harvest doesn’t necessarily mean the population is decreasing,” he said.
While the number of bucks provides an index of abundance, the key factor remains the does. “If we harvest enough females we can start getting the deer density down, but we need more hunter access and more hunter effort to harvest more females,” he said.
The Island deer herd was the focus of an August 23 discussion on tick-borne illness that was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health Tick Borne Disease Council (TBDC). Sam Telford, professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a consultant to the TBDC, said that his primary short-term objective is to significantly reduce the deer population on the Island. “I’ve found over 300 ticks on one deer,” Mr. Telford told the group. “Multiply that by 2,000 ticks for every deer-fed female tick, you get a sense of how crucial this is. It’s no coincidence that the concentration of Lyme [disease] is where you have deer habitat and human habitat, and there are strict limitations to hunting.”
A January 2013 survey of deer density using aerial mapping techniques presented at the August meeting showed the highest concentration of deer in those areas that are either difficult to reach or off limits to hunters.
Thomas Millette, professor of Geology and Geography and Director of the Geoprocessing Laboratory at Mount Holyoke College, criss-crossed the Island in an airplane mounted with a thermal imaging camera, shooting during a January cold snap to maximize the contrast of the ground temperature and body heat of the deer. “You do have an enormous deer population,” he said.
The largest areas estimated to hold 50-plus deer per square mile included the Woods property in West Tisbury, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) where hunting is not allowed, a section of State Forest south of West Tisbury Road also managed by TNC, and an area of Quansoo that includes property owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which allow hunting by permit.
This article was updated to reflect a correction. The 2013 deer season begins on October 21.