ISLESBORO, Maine — Along with flowers, warm breezes and visitors from other states, warm weather on Islesboro brings worries about ticks, Lyme disease and, by most accounts, an overabundance of deer on the picturesque Maine island community.
Earlier this month, residents voted 45 to 27 at a special town meeting once again to allow an unlimited deer hunt on the island in the dead of winter for the next three years, as part of an effort to reduce the white-tailed deer population from about 50 per square mile to 10 per square mile. At the same June 11 meeting, voters decided by a one-vote margin against holding the hunt during the fall, a time when hunt proponents say the deer are well-fed, on the move and easier to kill.
One strong hunt advocate is Bill Tilden, a woodcutter who is the chairman of the Islesboro Deer Reduction Committee who has twice been diagnosed with Lyme disease. He said he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of will by islanders to take action that would truly decrease the deer herd.
“There’s a big deer lobby over here that really doesn’t want us to take the deer off the island,” Tilden said Monday. “They like it just the way it is. They do not want to change it. They’re concerned with Lyme disease, but not to the point where they want to change the number of deer on the island. They want it both ways, and I don’t believe we can have it both ways.”
The issue is divisive and came to a head last autumn when islanders considered hiring a sharpshooter to cull the herd and reduce the risk of Lyme disease. Ultimately, islanders voted 148-87 against bringing the sharpshooter to the island during a special town meeting. With nearly half of the island’s 570 registered voters attending the meeting, some called the turnout “historic.”
“We came out of that go-round so bruised that people don’t even want to raise this topic again,” Selectman Sandy Oliver said this week. “The problem still exists. We still have too many deer, we still have too much Lyme disease and we don’t like any of the solutions.”
‘Proof is in the pudding’
Lyme disease has plagued Islesboro since the early 2000s, Tilden said, with a big spike in 2008 that alarmed many. That is when he was first diagnosed with the disease. After that, the Deer Reduction Committee was formed, and in 2010, Stantec Consulting conducted a deer population estimate that found the island had about 62 deer per square mile — about 750 deer altogether.
Too many, according to islanders, who asked the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for help managing the population. In 2012, the department approved a special deer hunt to take place on the island after the expanded archery season ended.
The hunts were restricted to island residents or landowners, and shotguns were the only permitted firearm, making it the first time the island held a traditional firearm season to hunt deer. The goal was to harvest 100 deer during each special season, but hunters haven’t come close to that number. The first year, 50 deer were taken and about 36 deer were taken during each of the next two years.
“It’s nowhere near enough,” Tilden said.
The deer population dropped to about 48 deer per square mile, but that number crept up this spring to about 50 deer per square mile. Those numbers are concerning to the people who suffer from and treat Lyme disease.
Last year, Maine state biologist Keel Kemper told the Bangor Daily News that in locations that have aggressively removed deer — such as on Peaks Island and on Monhegan Island — there has been a “precipitous decline” in the abundance of ticks.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Kemper said then. “They removed all the deer from Monhegan, and the Lyme disease went away.”
Hard to manage ‘iconic’ animal
Many Islesboro residents have been diagnosed with Lyme disease in the last few years, with 53 confirmed cases two years ago. That means the small island, with its year-round population of about 600 people, accounted for 3.8 percent of the total Lyme disease cases diagnosed in Maine that year.
The high prevalence of Lyme disease has not meant there is a uniform response on the part of islanders, Oliver said as she explained the different approaches.
“There’s people who are worried about the disease but believe that it’s our individual responsibility to protect ourselves; That it isn’t up to the town to protect us by killing all the deer,” she said.
Other islanders like what the deer represents, she said, calling it an “iconic animal.”
In England in days of yore, only gentry could hunt deer. When settlers first came to America from Europe, they found lots of deer, and it became an important source of food. It remains important to lots of people, including some Islesboro families Oliver said would have a hard time getting through the winter without it. Some of those folks take a dim view of culling the herd to 10 deer per square mile. And still others just plain think it’s wrong to kill animals.
“People have articulated to me that Americans tend to eliminate their problems by killing them,” she said. “They object to the killing of the deer on that account.”
Oliver said she feels the island used to manage its deer herd just fine before the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife got involved.
“Islanders had their own management techniques,” she said. “People were good about it. They may have baited, they may have jacked, but they ate the damn animals. They were getting them the easiest, the cheapest way they could. … I just think if the state would stay out of the way and let the islanders handle this, we could get the deer down to a manageable level.”
Kemper said Wednesday that the town of Islesboro approached the department to ask for help with its abundance of deer, and that both the department and the island need to operate within existing statutes that govern hunting in Maine.
The department still needs to approve the hunt that islanders voted on earlier this month. If it is approved, the hunt will begin in December and last through the end of February, and it would be open only to hunters who live on the island or own land there.
“I’ve referred to this in the past as a regulatory dance,” Kemper said. “We cannot force anything on Islesboro, and Islesboro cannot do these things without the department agreeing to it. They can’t just go out and say, well, we want a deer season 12 months a year.”
Oliver said it is clear there are too many deer on Islesboro. Browsing deer have done “terrific damage” to the island’s flora, she said, impeding regeneration of wildflowers and hardwood trees such as oaks and maples. They also halt any kind of agriculture, unless islanders fence around any area they want to cultivate.
“It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “I like to have a few vegetables to go with the venison.”
Tilden said he is hoping that more Maine hunters who like venison will come to Islesboro during the regular fall archery season and do their part to manage the island’s deer population.
“There’s plenty of deer,” he said. “You’re going to get your deer, don’t worry.”