Wildlife board promises action on deer
Division of Fisheries and Wildlife board chairman George Darey, flanked by vice-chairman John Creedon (left) and secretary Michael Roche (right). Photo by Ezra Blair
The state Fisheries and Wildlife Board (FWB) met formally for the first time on Martha's Vineyard yesterday afternoon. Judging by the board's reaction to many requests from speakers asking for immediate action to decrease the number of deer on the Island, the board may return before long.
Following a public presentation on deer management by Bill Woytek, state deer project leader, Island residents described the ravages of tick-borne diseases and urged the board to increase hunting opportunities in order to reduce the number of deer, the principal hosts for the deer tick.
At the conclusion of the meeting, George Darey of Lenox, fisheries and wildlife board chairman, promised those present that his board would react once it had reviewed all of the comments. "I guarantee you this board responds to problems," he said. "We have heard you loud and clear and will act
Wayne MacCallum, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife director, noted that the comments he heard yesterday were quite different from those he received the last time he visited Martha's Vineyard almost a decade ago in connection with a possible expansion of the state's shotgun deer season to two weeks. In the past, comments did not support a change, he said.
As a result, only two of the state's 15 hunting zones, Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod, still retain one-week shotgun seasons. Hunting with shotguns accounts for the majority of deer slain each year.
Michael Roche of Orange, board secretary, told The Times that any changes would occur as part of an ongoing process of deer management. That would include a public hearing on any proposed changes in deer regulations.
The idea of a meeting on the Vineyard began with a letter from The Times. Mr. Darey, who was re-elected chairman for the 26th year during the formal portion of the board meeting, began the meeting by thanking The Times for the invitation.
The board's formal business included setting a date for a public hearing on Nantucket to hear comment on a request by Nantucket selectmen to eliminate that island's special one-week winter deer hunt, approved last year as a means of dealing with Nantucket's growing deer numbers.
Following a presentation by a state restoration ecologist on the role of prescribed burns, Mr. Woytek provided a comprehensive picture of deer management goals and densities across the state and on Martha's Vineyard. Hunting is used as the primary tool to manage deer numbers, primarily by targeting does.
Mr. Woytek said hunting restrictions, including posted properties on which hunting is not allowed, impede those efforts. "Access is a big issue,"' he said.
Of the Vineyard's approximately 94 square miles, Mr. Woytek said that there are 47 square miles of forested deer habitat, with an estimated density of 40 to 50 deer per square mile. He said that based on harvest data the deer population appeared to be flattening out.
He said the best way to begin to decrease numbers would be to increase the antlerless deer harvest, over a period of time. Many in the room, who said they were not hunters, were in favor of that and more.
Julia Mitchell of West Tisbury said that many deer seek refuge in private conservation areas during hunting season. She asked about the effectiveness of birth control and using professional sharpshooters.
Mr. Woytek said that sharpshooters were an expensive option particularly in light of the fact that hunters will shoot deer for free. Regarding birth control, he said it had proven ineffective on free-range deer and did not address the issue of ticks.
Peter Norris of Chilmark said he had been treated for Lyme disease. He said the increase in deer and corresponding increase in tick-borne illnesses was a public health emergency. He said if the season was 53 weeks a year, he would be for it.
Walter Ashley of Oak Bluffs, an experienced Vineyard hunter who also operates an official state deer checking station at his business location, said many hunters preferred a rearrangement of the bow and black powder seasons rather than the addition of one week to shotgun season.
"Give them seasons they can work with and get it done," he said. "It is a lot easier, it seems, to pop them off one at a time than trying to get them in one shot."
Sam Feldman of Chilmark, one of the leaders of the tick task force, an ad hoc citizens group, said he had heard many stories from people who had contracted tick borne disease. "The suffering of these people is amazing when you hear these stories," he said.
Mr. Feldman said the Island needed the board's help to reduce the number of deer. "We do have a public health crisis," he said.
Sam Telford, a research scientist who has conducted extensive studies of ticks on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, said that reducing deer densities and managing habitat were the best ways to reduce deer ticks. He said the point he wanted to make was that "the time to act is now."
He said if people had acted on Martha's Vineyard ten years ago the Island would not find itself in this situation.
‘What will happen ten years from now?" he asked.
Trudy Taylor of Chilmark described her own bout with Lyme Disease and said she had heard of many others. "It is a really devastating illness," she said. Mrs. Taylor said her personal view of deer had undergone a dramatic shift from the days when she was a child and urged her mother to take a photograph when she saw one. "I think today, I could just drown it," she said.
Elizabeth Zane of Chilmark said she had lost her spleen and almost died after contracting babesiosis. The high numbers of ticks had made her and her husband reconsider living on the Vineyard, a place they love. "I am actually thinking of becoming a hunter myself," she said.
Jessica Almy of Waltham, a representative of the Humane Society of the United States, expressed the only skepticism regarding the use of hunting as a management tool.
Following the meeting, Ms. Almy told The Times her organization opposes hunting for sport or trophies but does not oppose all hunting, such as that done for sustenance.
She said there are specific kinds of hunting that are more objectionable than others.