Deer hunting policies vary on conservation lands
At a meeting of the state Fisheries and Wildlife board last week, the state's top deer biologist told a group of Island residents concerned about the spread of tick-borne diseases that a lack of hunting access can impede efforts to control burgeoning deer populations.
An increase in deer numbers is linked to a corresponding increase in deer ticks, small blood-feeding insects capable of transmitting a variety of illnesses, including Lyme disease, babesiosis, and erlichiosis.
As a result, on Martha's Vineyard nonhunters are increasingly speaking out in favor of opening up properties to hunting. Conservation land managers are also evaluating hunting policies with regard to controlling deer.
At a fisheries and wildlife board meeting on September 28, Bill Woytek, state deer project leader, described the size of the Vineyard deer herd and said that hunting remains the most effective means of controlling deer, particularly during the shotgun season, which accounts for the majority of the deer killed.
State wildlife officials estimate there are from 85,000 to 95,000 deer statewide. Densities range from about 10 per square mile in northwestern Massachusetts to 50 to 60 per square mile on Nantucket Island.
Mr. Woytek estimated the number of Island deer at 40 to 50 deer per square mile of deer habitat, which he said accounted for approximately 47 square miles of the total area of the Island. He bases his estimate on deer harvest data and reported road kills.
A total of 12,266 were killed statewide during the archery, shotgun, and black powder 2004 hunting seasons. Of those, 688 were taken on Martha's Vineyard, the majority, 448, during the Island's one-week shotgun season.
Except for the Vineyard and Cape Cod, the state shotgun season is two weeks. State wildlife officials said the most effective way to decrease the number of deer on Martha's Vineyard would be to increase the shotgun season to two weeks.
The white tail deer is a survivor. Possessed of keen hearing, sharp eyesight, and an acute sense of smell, deer seek sanctuary during the height of shotgun season by moving to land areas free of hunting pressure.
Members of the tick task force, an ad hoc citizens group interested in decreasing the number of deer on Martha's Vineyard to combat the spread of tick-borne diseases, has discussed ways to open up more properties to hunting.
Public and private property posted with no hunting signs does not necessarily mean that hunting is not allowed. In some cases, property managers allow a select number of hunters access.
Across the Island, public and private conservation organizations own or manage thousands of acres of prime deer habitat. Hunting policies vary on these properties, depending on management goals and deed restrictions.
The 5,100-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest is the Island's largest tract of land open to deer hunting. During the one-week shotgun season, large groups of hunters organized into gangs often attempt to push deer out of the thick vegetation
The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, a public land management agency, owns 2,608 acres of land across the Vineyard. Hunting in one form or another is allowed on almost all of the agency's properties, but hunters must register with the Land Bank for a permit. During the shotgun season, Land Bank properties are closed to the public, although the agency allows a limited number of hunters to hunt on specific properties.
James Lengyel, Land Bank executive director, said that since its inception hunting has been one of the conservation uses the agency was created to permit and figures into discussions when considering potential purchases.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the country's largest private conservation organizations, has a small foothold on Martha's Vineyard. Matthew Pelikan, TNC Island programs manager, said TNC is currently crafting new land management policies that will include the degree to which some type of human activity is allowed, including hunting. He said TNC does not actually own a great deal of land on Martha's Vineyard.
TNC does hold the conservation restriction on the Woods Preserve, approximately 540 acres of prime deer habitat off Middle Road and Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. Mr. Woods does not allow hunting and places advertisements in both island newspapers stating that his property is patrolled during shotgun season. TNC also owns the 90-acre Hoft farm in West Tisbury.
Mr. Pelikan said that as a rule TNC does not object to hunting and if there are restrictions they are based on public safety or the preference of donors. He said any decision to allow hunting is made on a property-by-property basis that takes into account the ecological compatibility.
"When it comes to management of land I think the deer are present in some places in such a density that they are causing negative impacts on the vegetation," said Mr. Pelikan. "That, in addition to Lyme Disease and car collisions and so on is a compelling reason for reducing the density of the herd."
The Sheriff's Meadow Foundation (SMF), a private nonprofit Island conservation organization, controls more than 2,700 acres either through outright ownership or conservation restrictions, including the organization's 312-acre Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary off Indian Hill Road in West Tisbury.
Executive director Dick Johnson said SMF does not allow hunting except for those properties where hunting is allowed as a condition of the conservation restriction and the property owner's wishes. He said the hunting policy dates back to the Foundation's creation.
Mr. Johnson said SMF has been talking about its hunting policies regarding deer for a number of years, but is in something of a quandary because it wants its actions to remain consistent with the wishes of the owners. "A lot of the property that we were given, the donors are not around anymore and we really don't know how they felt about hunting," he said. "So we are trying to look property-by-property and try to make sure we are not doing something that would have been anathema to somebody who made a very generous gift of land thinking that it would never be hunted."
Mr. Johnson said that based on his own observations there are many more deer on the Island. He is also familiar with tick-borne diseases, having been treated five times for Lyme.
He said at this point SMF has not made any changes but is certainly thinking about it and paying attention to the discussions among other groups. "I have always had a suspicion that deer moved into certain parts of Cedar Tree Neck come hunting season," he said.
The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the state's oldest private conservation group, owns or manages a number of the Island's most popular properties, including Long Point in West Tisbury, Menemsha Hills in Chilmark and the Cape Poge and Wasque Reservations on Chappaquiddick.
Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional director, said TTOR has no statewide deer hunting policy but looks at each property individually. In many cases, individual property managers control hunting access.
For example, at Long Point and Menemsha Hills, hunting is allowed by permission of the property manager. Mr. Kennedy said that knowing who the hunters are helps in monitoring the properties more closely and ensuring proper behavior.
"The hunters know it is a privilege and not a right," said Mr. Kennedy, who added that the increasing number of deer is an issue that needs to be addressed. He said not every property can support hunting, but that it is certainly wise to keep an open mind.