Deer-hunting debate heats up on Martha’s Vineyard

A proposal for an additional two-week season gains favor with selectmen but draws fire from huntsmen.

John Bunker poses with a deer he shot in the 2013 hunting season. — File phot by Lynlee Gale

There’s no topic like deer hunting to spark a spirited debate on Martha’s Vineyard, and another has begun.

The initial spark came last week, when Oak Bluffs and Chilmark selectmen unanimously voted to send a letter to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) endorsing a supplemental, two-week, deer hunting season in January 2018, to help battle the Lyme disease epidemic on Martha’s Vineyard.

This Tuesday, Edgartown and Aquinnah selectmen also unanimously endorsed the action.

Selectmen’s votes came on the heels of a presentation by Dick Johnson, field biologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health Tick Borne Disease Initiative (TBDI). Mr. Johnson has been studying ticks and their role in spreading Lyme disease and a growing list of other maladies on the Vineyard for the past six years.
“Island-wide, the biggest thing we can do to fight Lyme disease is reduce the number of deer,” Mr. Johnson told Oak Bluffs selectmen last at their regular meeting last Tuesday. “There are about 4,000 deer on the Island. That comes out to roughly 40 deer per square mile. We need to get that down to 20 per square mile to see an impact on tick-borne illness … The average on the Cape is about 15 per square mile, and they have much lower rates of Lyme disease than we do.”

Mr. Johnson cited the “Deer Management as a Strategy for the Reduction of Lyme Disease” study done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) in 2014.

The eight-page report references several studies in New England that have shown that a significant drop in deer population leads to a drop in deer tick population, and a subsequent drop in Lyme disease infection rates. “Observational studies and computer models suggest that a reduction of deer densities to fewer than 20 deer per square mile may significantly reduce tick bite risk … More liberal [hunting] regulations may be needed to achieve community deer management goals.”

The CAES study also had some promising research for Islanders, stating, “The incremental removal, reduction or elimination of deer has clearly been shown to substantially reduce tick abundance in a number of studies conducted on islands or other geographically isolated areas.”

As the Lyme disease epidemic has worsened, consensus has grown among Vineyarders that the deer population needs to be reduced. But the TBDI proposal of a two-week shotgun season in January is already creating a sharp divide.

Too many negatives

Hunters who have spoken to and written to The Times have been unanimously against the second hunting season.

“I appreciate what Dick Johnson is trying to do, but there are so many negatives, it doesn’t make sense,” Ned Casey of Edgartown told The Times. Mr. Casey has been hunting deer on Martha’s Vineyard for 42 years. “I’ve had Lyme disease four times, and I hate ticks with a passion,” he said. “Does the herd need to be culled? Yes. How much? I don’t know, but [4,000 deer] sounds high to me.”

The Island deer count is based on two studies, done in 2013 and 2014, by Thomas Millette, director of GeoProcessing Laboratory, under the aegis of the DFW, where deer were counted in an aerial survey using thermal imaging technology. Mr. Casey said he thinks the thermal imaging probably picked up livestock and inflated the deer count.

Irrespective of the accuracy of the deer census, Mr. Casey believes the TBDI approach is flawed on several other levels.

“You’re not going to see many deer in January,” he said. “By the end of December, they’re reclusive. They become nocturnal, in part because they’ve been hunted since October. By January they start to ‘yard up’ in groups of does and bucks. They’re not in the rut anymore, so they’re not nearly as active.”

The “rut” is deer mating season, when hormone crazed young bucks chase does over hill and dale at all hours of the day to propagate the species. In the Northeast, the rut peaks in November.

Mr. Casey said deer were few and far between during the 19-day black powder season that began on Dec. 12 and ended on Dec. 31.

“I hunted almost every huntable day this year,” he said. “I hardly even saw any deer the last weeks of December. They’re just not on the move.”

To Mr. Casey’s point, in 2015, human predators took 607 deer on Martha’s Vineyard — only 82 were taken during black powder season, according to the DFW. Three hundred and twenty-nine deer were downed during shotgun season, and 208 during archery season. Hunting statistics are not yet available for the 2016 season; however, statistics from the Dukes County Sheriff’s office show cars did a bang-up job. There were 207 car-deer collisions in 2016, a 43 percent increase over the 145 car-deer collisions in 2015.

In what would become a common refrain among hunters, Mr. Casey said the most logical step would be to allow Sunday hunting during the state deer season.

“That would add 10 huntable days, when the deer are still on the move,” he said. “Massachusetts is the only New England state that prohibits Sunday hunting. It’s a blue law, it’s outdated. It should be repealed.”

In another common refrain, Mr. Casey stated he believes deer numbers could be substantially reduced if more private property was made available during the hunting season. “Open up the Kennedy property to some experienced hunters, we’ll get plenty of deer,” he said. “The same with Seven Gates.”

Although selectmen in several towns have suggested that the January hunt could bring people from off-Island who would inject money into the dormant hospitality businesses, that too, poses a litany of complications.

“Where are these guys going to hunt?” Mr. Casey said. “The majority of guys hunt the Land Bank and the State Forest. Is the Land Bank going to open up in January? Will Sheriff’s Meadow open up? If not, you’ll have a bunch of hunters packed into the State Forest. Where will the liability stand if someone gets hurt? There’s already guys from off-Island posting on Facebook about it, like it’s going to be a giant party. Islanders aren’t going to want a lot of off-Islanders descending on the Vineyard. We all know what happened on Nantucket.”

Mr. Casey was referring to the debacle that resulted when Nantucket added a two-week deer hunting season in February 2005, also in an effort to reduce the infection rate of tick borne diseases. Although 246 deer were killed, dozens of stir-crazy hunters from the mainland descended on the Gray Lady, and a public outcry ensued over hunters trespassing on private prop­erty and other inappropriate behavior, such as field-dressing deer on front lawns.

“The February hunt, no one wants to revisit that,” Nantucket selectman and hunter Bob DeCosta told the Cape Cod Times in 2013. “Nobody likes a gun in their backyard.”

Mike Ferry of West Tisbury has been hunting deer on the Vineyard for 40 years. He told The Times he thinks there is plenty of opportunity to cull the herd during the fall season.

“I think the season is working the way it is,” he said. “Legally we can take 242 deer a year, per person. You get four doe permits a day. With 10 weeks in a season, and six days in those weeks, that’s 240 does in a year, and you get two buck tags a year. It’s already 10 grueling weeks long. If they added Sunday, the guys who work during the week would be out there.”

A common refrain from Island hunters is that more deer would be taken during the season if there was cold storage and processing available.

“It’s one of the biggest problems we all have,” Mr. Ferry said. “I use a guy on Chappaquiddick, I have to bring it over there, pay the ferry, pick it up right away because he doesn’t have a cooler. I stop shooting deer because there’s no way to process them. It’s ridiculous. I visited a buddy in Virginia, and he goes to a place where you drop off your deer and they take care of the whole thing; it’s the way to go.”

Mr. Ferry added the January hunt could have a gruesome aspect as well. “Many of the does who were impregnated during the fall rut have fully formed fetuses in January,” he said. “When you gut a deer and you’ve got triplets coming out, it’s just awful. No hunter wants to do that.”

Herb Moody of West Tisbury, a hunter with more than 30 years of experience, told The Times in a letter that he also objected to the measure, asking, “Has anyone asked the hunters about this?”

Rather than adding an extra season, Mr. Moody suggested “gang hunting,” — where a group of hunters flush deer from the brush while another group await with shotguns at the ready — is the most effective way to cull the deer herd.

Mr. Moody also advocated Sunday hunting. “There is your two-week increase,” he wrote.

Mr. Moody also repeated the need to open up more land to hunting. “We are literally fighting for turf to hunt,” he wrote. “Open up the Trustees of the Reservations, Land Bank, Sheriff’s Meadow, Nature Conservancy and other large private tracts of land to groups of shotgun hunters … and you will see large numbers of deer taken.”

Hold your fire

Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Matt Poole, Edgartown health agent and co-chairman of the TBDI, said Island hunters’ concerns have not fallen on deaf ears.

He stressed that Mr. Johnson’s lobbying was only the first step in a long process. “We just need to know the selectmen will sponsor this,” Mr. Poole said. “If selectmen don’t support it, there’s no point going any further. Even if they sponsor it, there’s still no guarantee that this is going to fly.”

Mr. Poole said Sunday hunting has been discussed. “We hear the hunters loud and clear on that,” he said. “We know many have to work during the week and their opportunities to hunt are limited. But there have been three bills at the state house for Sunday hunting; none have passed. You run the risk of upsetting nonhunters, the joggers, the bikers, the dog walkers, the birders, who like that one day that they can go out [during the season]. It’s not to say it won’t be pursued again, but there’s potential downside with Sunday hunting.”

Mr. Poole said a two-week season earlier in the fall might be a better option.

“It struck me this weekend that we might be better off going a few weeks earlier in the season for archery,” he said. “The question now is, Will the Island get behind an additional hunt? We’re not going to the mat on January. The whole idea is to get two additional weeks for Island hunters. I hope we’re all aiming for the same thing. I think we are.”

Mr. Poole said there have been “productive and ongoing discussions” about obtaining a cold storage locker for Island hunters.

In another developing situation, Mr. Poole said that by next season, hunters may finally be allowed to donate surplus venison to food pantries. To date, hunters have been prohibited from donating venison to charitable organizations because of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) restrictions on four-legged animals.

“We’re reasonably optimistic that we’ll be able to start putting venison in a food-pantry-like distribution system,” he said. “I’ve spoken with a food inspector from the Department of Public Health (DPH) food inspection program. Nantucket is doing it, much to my surprise. It’s looking much more feasible. With those deer, we would need to subsidize the butchering.”

Matthew Dix, conservation lands foreman for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, said that no formal discussions had taken place about opening land for a January hunt, but that he personally was in favor of a trial run.

“My board would have to consider whether the positives would outweigh disenfranchising the public from using the property for a few weeks,” he told The Times on Tuesday. “I know the staff would definitely be able to argue in favor of it from an ecological standpoint. We could make a good argument to try it, at least for a few years, until we understand how productive a late season hunt can be, and whether or not we’re making our objectives on the science level. I think we could at least give it a whirl.”