OLD TOWN, Maine — For the first time in recent memory, there will be a deer hunt this year on Marsh Island. The Old Town City Council voted at its regular meeting Monday night to authorize a two-week controlled bow hunt on two parcels of city-owned land in December.
One parcel, about 210 acres, wraps around the Old Town municipal airport. The other, 155 acres, is on Penny Road, across U.S. Route 2 from the former Georgia-Pacific paper mill, now owned by Red Shield. Specially qualified bow hunters, selected from the Bowhunters/Landowners Information Program of the Maine Bowhunters Association, will carry out the hunt.
According to council member Alan Stormann, the hunt is needed to reduce the size of the deer herd on Marsh Island. The overblown population of white-tailed deer not only wreaks havoc in area gardens and farm fields, he said, but also has been a factor in more than 40 car-deer crashes in Old Town in just the past three years.
So far, Stormann said, the increasing number and boldness of the deer are not associated with an increase in cases of Lyme disease or other human illnesses related to deer herds, nor do the deer appear to be unhealthy or inbred. But, he said, there are just too many of the animals to be sustained on the approximately 10-square-mile island.
Bounded by the Penobscot River on the east and the Stillwater River on the west, Marsh Island is made up of much of the more populated areas of Orono and Old Town, including thousands of acres owned by the University of Maine, the island’s largest landowner. Since 1965, the entire island has been a designated game preserve, created by the Legislature, with no hunting or trapping allowed. Before that, areas within the two towns, primarily those lands owned by UM, were designated game preserves. Orono’s game preserve was established in 1954 and Old Town’s in 1931.
Old Town resident, hunting enthusiast and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Wednesday that efforts to open the island, or areas of the island, to bow hunting have been going on since at least the mid-1990s. An accurate deer count hasn’t been taken on Marsh Island in recent years, he said, but in 1989 there were estimated to be between 65 and 75 deer per square mile. A healthy population, and the goal of state biologists, is 25 deer per square mile, he said.
Earlier efforts to authorize a bow hunt on Marsh Island have met with failure due to citizen opposition in Orono and Old Town and, importantly, the inability to get UM to support the idea, Dunlap said. The solution reached Monday night offers an opportunity to try out the idea in a limited way, he said.
Dunlap said communities with high populations of deer are always torn over the issue of allowing hunting to reduce the herd.
“There are people who want to get rid of the deer and there are people who like the deer,” he said. “You’ll never see anything tear a community apart like a deer problem.”
Among those who like the deer is Old Town resident, legislative candidate and deer-feeder Valerie Carr-Winocour.
“The town is divided,” she said. “People who have lived here for 50 years realize that feeding the deer makes them part of the problem. But they figure it’s their deer and they’ll deal with it.” Carr-Winocour, who makes no apologies for being a “wildlife-lover,” said many others in Old Town join her in opposing the hunt.
“I think the people should be able to have a vote on this,” she said.
City Manager Peggy Daigle said a popular vote is unlikely. The city followed legal protocol and residents have had several opportunities to make their feelings known. “It’s an emotional issue,” she acknowledged, “but most of those who attended the public hearings have been in favor of the hunt.”
Daigle noted that the council’s approval is for this year only, making the coming two-week bow hunt something of a pilot project. Depending on how it plays out, she said, it may or may not be adopted as a permanent season on the city-owned properties.
Dunlap takes it a step further. If Old Town’s limited bow hunt is successful this year at reducing the local deer population without raising the ire of local residents, he hopes it may pave the way for an islandwide bow-hunting season in future years.
Emergency rulemaking at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will fine-tune the details of the hunt, including the dates and the number of deer each hunter may take.