Shotgun week was good for hunters, not so good for deer

Unmindful of hunting season, a young buck surveyed his surroundings off Middle Road in Chilmark last week while his companion, a doe, stood near. — Photo by Tim Johnson

From the perspective of Massachusetts wildlife officials, the two-week deer shotgun season that began November 28 provides the biggest bang for the buck when compared to the archery and blackpowder seasons. Shotgun hunters annually take the highest number of deer, thereby providing the most effective means of keeping the state’s deer herd in check.

On Martha’s Vineyard, it appears that the shotgun season is having the desired effect based on a sampling of first week results. After several disappointing years hunters are having good success.

Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) officials checked in 210 deer at the state forest check station between Monday and Saturday, the first six days of the shotgun season. By contrast, hunters checked in 124 deer over the same period last year.

The Wampanoag Tribe in Aquinnah checked in 86 deer versus 42 during the first week of the 2010 season. At Larry’s Tackle on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, an official check station now open 9 am to 3 pm, owner Steve Purcell said he checked in 57 deer, 16 bucks and 41 does. Last year, he checked in 45 deer the first week.

DFW only staffs the state forest check station the first week of the season. The data gathered on Martha’s Vineyard and at similar check stations across the state provides a snapshot of the health of the deer herd.

In a telephone conversation Monday, veteran DFW forester John Scanlon said the first week went great. “It’s been a good many years since we checked in 200 deer in the first week there,” he said. “We certainly have in the past.”

Mr. Scanlon recalled that the record for the first week was near 240, so there is precedent but there was no question that the tally was well above recent years. He said hunters who stopped at the barebones wooden check station facility shared a number of ideas for the surge.

The predominant view he said was that following years of abundant acorns there was a shortage of hard mast on the Island. “And that rarely happens because you have both the tree oaks and the scrub oaks so the percentage of years when both fail is very small but I guess this was one of them,” he said. “People were almost universally saying they were seeing more deer than they had in the past, not that there were more deer, because they were moving to find food perhaps.”

Mr. Scanlon said two 10-point bucks that weighed about 150 pounds and 160 pounds were among the deer checked in last week. The herd looked very healthy, he said.

Hunting techniques vary between the solitary hunter who sits in a tree stand or stands still on the ground waiting to intercept a deer, and multiple hunters , or gangs, who work together by splitting up into “drivers” and “standers.” The drivers push deer from their hiding places in thick brush to the waiting shooters.

Many of the large gangs of hunters that once regularly hunted the Island are gone. Mr. Scanlon said. But those that remain had high success. “I guess they picked up the slack,” he said.

Unlike the mainland zones, individual Island hunters often account for multiple deer. Mr. Scanlon attributed that to a strong hunting culture among pockets of Islanders. “The families I am talking about — Pachicos, Maciels and Ben Davids — and the list goes on, and for people within those groups to check 3, 4 and 5 deer is not that uncommon.”

He said many members of the Island groups take one week off to hunt. “That is less and less common throughout Massachusetts for people to actually take an entire week just to go deer hunting,” he said.

Environmental Police Sergeant Matt Bass said the first week of the season was quiet and free of complaints. “No issues,” he said Monday.

Beyond the hunters

Hunters are not the only ones who take an interest in the annual deer harvest. Land managers who must contend with the potential environmental damage when deer herds are unchecked and public health officials working to address the Island’s high incidence of tick borne diseases also have a stake in the annual count.

Bret Stearns, Wampanoag natural resources department director, said deer management is important to everyone on Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Stearns cited several reasons he said were well understood on the Island. Those included the deer’s role as a host for deer ticks and collisions with vehicles. “There were three that I know about in Aquinnah last week alone,” he said in an email to The Times. “Most of my department vehicles have dents in the sides from deer as well. Reducing populations and maintaining manageable herd numbers is an important community function of hunting.”

Adam Moore, executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, in an email to The Times said land managers have several concerns with deer population growth. “First, a high deer population contributes to the high rates of tick-borne diseases among Island residents. Second, extensive deer browsing of certain native trees, such as oaks, can severely impede the regeneration of these trees. Third, by ingesting the seeds of invasive plants and spreading these seeds in their droppings, deer unwittingly help invasive plants to spread.”

Mr. Moore, a Yale trained forester responsible for managing more than 2,000 acres, said deer are fond of some of the rare plants that Sheriff’s Meadow is trying toprotect. An excessive deer population would make it more difficult for these plants to survive on Martha’s Vineyard.

“As land managers, we sometimes take extra measures to protect certain plants from hungry deer,” he said. “At Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary, we are trying to restore a native but long lost tree, the Atlantic white cedar. As this tree is very palatable to deer, we’ve installed tree shelters around the cedars to prevent them from succumbing to the browsing of deer.”

Last year, the Island boards of health, with the support of their town selectmen, applied for and received a multi-year priority grant for a tick-borne disease community health initiative the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital funded through a state-required community health program.

The TBDC is made up of Island board of health members, physicians, and health and environmental management professionals. Tisbury board of health member Michael Loberg and Edgartown health agent Matt Poole are the committee’s co-chairmen. Its members are divided into two groups, a medical committee headed by Mr. Loberg and a tick committee headed by Mr. Poole.

The committee’s goal is to reduce the incidence of tick-borne illness on Martha’s Vineyard by six-fold, bringing it in line with that on Cape Cod.

In June, the TBDC sponsored 10 presentations to elementary grade students in Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School about ticks and Lyme disease as part of a community health initiative.

In a telephone conversation Monday, Mr. Poole said there is no question the size of the Island’s deer population has a direct relationship to deer tick numbers. To that extent, he said, the annual deer harvest is important to accomplishing the group’s goals. “The deer population provides a critical link to the whole tick life cycle,” Mr. Poole said, “and the whole tick-borne illness puzzle on the Vineyard.”

Profesor Sam Telford, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a well-known tick researcher who conducts field work on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, is assisting the TBDC.

In numerous Island discussions he has highlighted deer numbers and landscape practices as critical factors in deer tick numbers.

Mr. Telford said deer tick numbers do not appear to be any different on Martha’s Vineyard this year, unlike those on the mainland where they were three to five times higher this fall, likely due to an increase in chipmunks and squirrels as a result of very heavy masting during 2010.

“These rodents fed a lot of nymphal deer ticks, which turned into the adult ticks,” he said in an email to The Times. “It did not hurt that the summer was wet and cooler, which helps tick survival.”

Mr. Telford said the annual deer harvest is the main mechanism for regulating the abundance of deer. “If deer were allowed to increase, there would be more deer ticks, more car-deer collisions, and more loss of plant diversity,” he said. “I would also argue that being able to harvest local resources may greatly help some families through these tough economic times.”