The island of Islesboro has long been known for its booming deer population, making it a popular place for hunters. But in recent years, residents have become concerned that the high number of deer — more specifically, the ticks the deer carry — are the cause for a spike in Lyme disease cases on the island.
On Sept. 30, at a special town meeting, Islesboro voters will decide whether to hire a sharpshooter to reduce the deer population, a method that has been used on other Maine islands.
“It’s a tough issue,” said Doug Welldon, member of Isleboro’s Deer Reduction Committee. “There’s a public health crisis here on the island.”
Deer are the prefered host of adult deer ticks, making them an integral part of the pest’s two-year life cycle. And of adult ticks sampled in highly endemic areas of the northeast, 50 percent have been found to carry Lyme disease bacteria, according to the American Lyme Disease Association.
In 2013, about 80 people were treated for tick bites on Islesboro; and of those people, 53 were confirmed cases of Lyme disease. That means, the small island community — which has a year-round population of about 550 people and a summer population of 1,000 people — accounted for 3.8 percent of the total Lyme disease cases (1,377) in Maine that year.
“It’s probably more,” said Allie Wood, PA, assistant director of Islesboro Health Center. “We don’t have a lab on the island, so we don’t have a way of checking easily.
If someones displaying the flu-like symptoms of Lyme disease but doesn’t have a the tell-tale bullseye rash, the only way of confirming the case is by blood test. Each Thursday morning, Islesboro holds a blood drive and sends the blood samples to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. And increasing number of those samples are being sent to be checked for Lyme disease.
“Some people come and go and don’t have insurance, so we can’t check everyone,” Wood said.
In response to concerns about Lyme disease and other serious tick-borne diseases, Islesboro has been working to reduce the island’s deer population since about 2010, when Stantec Consulting conducted a deer population estimate on Islesboro that stated the island had about 62 deer per square mile, or based on the size of the island, about 750 deer.
In 2011, Stantec conducted a second survey and determined the population density to be 48 deer per square mile on Islesboro and 53 deer per square mile on 700 Acre Island.
“What creates large numbers of deer on Islesboro are fairly mild winters and no predators,” state biologist Keel Kemper said. “Put those together and it’s not hard to achieve a very robust population.”
Also, Islesboro has traditionally prohibited hunting with firearms, leaving only bowhunters to pursue the island’s deer.
In 2010, the Islesboro Deer Reduction Committee was created to formulate and implement a plan to reduce the deer population on Islesboro and 700 Acre Island to 10 deer per square mile and maintain the population at that level.
But some residents aren’t on board with that plan.
“Hunting is a traditional activity throughout Maine — anything that impacts that is going to be controversial,” Welldon said.
“It’s heated wherever you go, I’ll tell you that,” said Gill Rivera, Islesboro resident and member of the Deer Reduction Committee.
In September 2012, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council approved a special deer hunt to take place on Islesboro from the first Monday following the end of the expanded archery season until Dec. 31, for a period of three years.
The Town of Islesboro restricted this hunt to island residents and designated shotguns as the only firearm permitted. The goal was to harvest 100 deer during each special season, but so far, they haven’t come close.
During the first special hunt in 2012, 50 deer were harvested. The 2013 special hunt had even lower returns with 36 deer were harvested.
“It has become apparent to many on Islesboro that the special hunt’s really not going to get the job done,” Kemper said.
“My stance on it is that we haven’t done a count [of the deer population] in three years,” Rivera said. “There’s no way of saying that we’re failing to reduce the deer herd if we don’t do a count.”
Using sharp shooters to control animal populations isn’t new to Maine. In the 1997, a sharpshooter killed 52 deer on Monhegan Island. The island, which is just 4.5 square miles in size, was being overcrowded with more than 70 deer, and, like Islesboro residents, Monhegan residents were concerned about the deer carrying disease-ridden ticks.
Similarly, in 1999, residents of Peaks Island voted in favor of having an expert shooter trim the deer large herd on the square-acre island. In February 2000, an expert shooter killed 172 deer on the island in five days, leaving an estimated 60 deer alive.
“Where you remove deer, you’ll see a precipitous decline in the abundance of ticks,” Kemper said. “The proof is in the pudding. They removed all the deer from Monhegan, and the Lyme disease went away.”
During early stages of a tick’s life, it attaches to small mammals such as mice. But it’s on deer and other larger mammals that female adult ticks obtain the final blood meal required to lay approximately 3,000 eggs in the early spring.
“You could try, for example, to get rid of all the mice and small mammals,” Kemper said. “There are products out there that do that, but it costs a minimum of about $3 million bucks even to begin that effort.”
In contrast, the professional sharpshooters of White Buffalo Inc. — the organization used to reduce deer populations on Monhegan and Peaks Island — charges between $150 and $400 per deer.
To reduce Islesboro’s deer population to 10 deer per square acre, the sharpshooters would have to harvest between 480 and 625 deer, which would cost between $72,000 and $260,000 based on White Buffalo’s rates.
Sharpshooters, unlike recreational hunters, don’t work within the frameworks of fair chase. To safely harvest a large number of deer in a short amount of time, they use bait piles to lure deer to specific areas. Using rifles, they shoot the deer from tree stands or from by vehicle, day or night, with the aid of spotlights. Typically, the meat is then donated to area food shelters.
“Sharpshooting is pretty advanced stuff and qualifies as a humane form of euthanasia by the American Veterinary Medical Association,” said Kemper, who has spoken at a number of Islesboro’s informational meetings about deer reduction over the past several years.
“These deer meetings are the biggest meetings we ever have,” Rivera said, estimating that about a third of the island shows up when deer are on the agenda.
“I think that some people don’t want to have people come from away to solve the problem,” Kemper said. “That’s a fairly Maine island-wide attitude at times.”
Nevertheless, most island residents share a concern about Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases that have recently been discovered in Maine. Cases of anaplasmosis, a disease transmitted by deer ticks, appear to be increasing in Maine, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. And in December, a South Thomaston woman died of Powassan virus after being bitten by a tick a month prior.
“A few weeks ago, I hear about a visitor who was bitten by a tick while walking along the side of the road, picking wildflowers,” Welldon said. “And now they’re going through serious treatment … if people should be able to pick wildflowers anywhere, it should be on Islesboro.”
Typical symptoms of Lyme disease are fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash. If left untreated with antibiotics, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. To learn more about Lyme disease, visit cdc.gov/lyme, and to learn about Maine’s tick ID lab, visit extension.umaine.edu/ipm/tickid.