State wildlife board seeks comment on extending deer shotgun season
Eight months after their first official visit to Martha's Vineyard, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) board returns Tuesday to hear what Islanders have to say about a proposal to extend the Island's deer shotgun season by one week. Growing concerns about tick-borne diseases and a growing deer population are behind the state recommendation.
Wayne MacCallum, MassWildlife director, said the public hearing is a follow-up to the informational meeting the board held last September. At that meeting the majority of speakers talked about bouts with Lyme disease and asked the DFW board to take immediate action to decrease the number of deer on the Island.
The DFW board, made up of seven unpaid volunteers appointed by the governor, makes regulations, sets policy, and oversees personnel appointments.
George Darey of Lenox, board chairman for more than 26 years, is a respected conservationist and outdoorsman. At the conclusion of last year's meeting, Mr. Darey 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 accordingly."
The DFW board will meet at 1:30 pm in the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven and is expected to vote when it meets next in June. Board members have said that they would base their decision on Island sentiment.
In a telephone conversation from his home in Lenox Tuesday, Mr. Darey said that rules changes approved by the board usually do not go into effect until the following year. His said that in view of the public health nature of the issue he would prefer to see the Vineyard season extended this year if there is support from Islanders.
Only two of the state's 15 hunting zones, Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod, have a one-week shotgun season. The rest of the state has a two-week season that typically begins after Thanksgiving weekend.
In a telephone conversation Monday from MassWildlife field headquarters, Bill Woytek, the state deer project leader, said that, proportionally, shotgun season accounts for the most deer of all the hunting seasons. "We added that week because it is the most effective and brings us in line with other zones," he said.
According to previous Island estimates provided by Mr. Woytek, there are 47 square miles of forested deer habitat, with an estimated density of 40 to 50 deer per square mile. Wildlife managers want to reduce that number.
Mr. Woytek said successful deer management would depend on hunter access to Island areas where deer now find refuge. He said property owners who do not allow that access are not part of the solution.
Many of those pressing for an increase in hunting on the Island are members of the tick task force, an ad hoc citizens group that has been working to educate residents and visitors about the dangers of tick-borne diseases and the tick's direct relationship to deer, their primary host.
The smaller deer tick, which is responsible for infecting humans with Lyme disease, the most publicized of tick-borne illnesses, is also capable of transmitting a malaria-like disease called babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis (HGE), a disease related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Last month, the task forces helped sponsor a Lyme disease conference and public forum that featured a panel of specialists in the field of prevention and treatment of tick-related diseases.
Sam Feldman, one of the leaders of the tick task force, said he supports the DFY proposal. Referring to the comments of the speakers at the recent tick forum, Mr. Feldman said that if the season is lengthened and the herd is reduced it would have a long-term positive effect on tick-borne diseases.
But not all Island hunters would welcome an additional week to hunt deer with a shotgun. Walter Ashley of Oak Bluffs, an experienced hunter who voluntarily checks in deer for the state, said that he does not think adding one week to the shotgun season will produce the results wildlife managers want to see. He thinks that extending the archery or muzzleloader seasons would be more effective.
Mr. Ashley said the number of deer taken during the 2005 archery and muzzleloader season remained approximately the same while shotgun numbers dropped.
"So where is the problem?" said Mr. Ashley. "Do we have less deer, do we have less hunters or do we have less access, and if we have less access what good is a two-week season going to prove?"
Mr. Ashley does agree with the state's emphasis on more access to areas now closed to hunters, including, he said, property owned by the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, a local conservation organization that owns more than 1,700 acres.
Sam Telford III, associate professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a well-known Island tick researcher, said that although he would like to see MassWildlife try to work with Island hunters regarding their preferences at this stage, a one-week extension is an easy change to make and would make recording deer management trends across the state a little easier by bringing the Island in line with most of the state.
The practical advantage for hunters, said Mr. Telford, one of the panelists at the tick conference, is that in the event of bad weather or work responsibilities hunters would still have an additional week to hunt with a shotgun.
Regardless of any suggestions, Mr. Telford said the key remains access. "The only chance for real progress is for landowners to allow access to their land if they do not currently allow hunting," he said in an e-mail to The Times. "Those landowners are probably increasing risk on their land because deer can be pretty smart and will take refuge on those properties, dropping their ticks there."
The Fisheries and Wildlife Board will accept written comment on the proposal to extend the season at any time prior to the public hearing, and for an additional two weeks following it. Written comments should be sent to: Chairman, Fisheries and Wildlife Board, c/o Wayne MacCallum, MassWildlife, 1 Rabbit Hill Rd, Westborough MA 01581.