Islesboro residents reject sharpshooting program to cull deer population

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Islesboro won’t be hiring a sharpshooter to control their deer population. The proposal was voted down, 148 to 87, by island residents on Tuesday at a special town meeting.

“It was the biggest town meeting I think I’ve ever seen,” said Gill Rivera, member of Islesboro’s Deer Reduction Committee. “I wasn’t surprised. The people have spoken.”

In recent years, Islesboro residents and visitors have become concerned that the island’s large deer herd — more specifically, the ticks the deer carry — are the cause for a spike in the Lyme disease cases treated on the island.

Hiring a sharpshooter to kill a percentage of the deer population is a method that has been used on a few other Maine islands that were previously overrun with deer, including Monhegan and Peaks Island.

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This is the second time that Islesboro has rejected a proposal to hire sharpshooters to cull the island’s deer herd, according to the Islesboro Town Office.

“It’s been overwhelmingly voted down,” Rivera said. “No matter how safe it is, just the word ‘sharpshooter’ scares half the people.”

This year’s proposal was to approve a hunt organized by professional sharpshooters this winter to rapidly reduce the deer population to a density of 10 per square mile or less. The cost of the hunt would have been underwritten by private funds, and all the meat from the hunt would have been distributed to the community.

To reach this goal, the expert shooters, White Buffalo Inc., would have needed to harvest between 480 and 625 deer based on recent population estimates.

Sharpshooters are able to harvest this many deer in a short amount of time because, unlike recreational hunters, they don’t work within the frameworks of fair chase. They are allowed to use bait piles to lure deer to specific areas, and using rifles, they shoot the deer from tree stands or vehicles, day or night, with the aid of spotlights. Typically, the meat is then donated to area food shelters.

“It was a big vote for Islesboro,” said Linda Gillies, a member of Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Reduction Committee. “We just didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”

“We’ll have to sort of regroup now,” she added. “But the basis for everything we do in the Tick-Borne Disease Reduction Committee is collecting information and getting it out for people both in terms of personal protection and what they can do with their properties.”

Lyme disease is a serious bacterial infection that, if left untreated with antibiotics, can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. People who are infected often develop flu-like symptoms, a rash, fatigue and headache. Later symptoms are joint pain and neurological problems such as temporary paralysis of one side of the face, numbness or weakness in limbs and impaired muscle movement.

In 2013, about 80 people were treated for tick bites on Islesboro, and of those people, 53 were confirmed as having Lyme disease. That means the small island community — with a year-round population of about 550 people and a summer population of about 1,000 — accounted for 3.8 percent of the total Lyme disease cases in Maine (1,377) that year.

Because deer are the prefered host of adult deer ticks, 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.

Islesboro has traditionally prohibited hunting deer with firearms, but in 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 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.

During the first special hunt in 2012, 50 deer were harvested; and during the 2013 special hunt, 36 deer were harvested. The goal was 100 deer per year. So in June 2013, island residents voted to expand the special hunt through the end of February.

The hiring of a sharpshooter would have replaced the third special hunt; but since the sharpshooter program was voted down, the special hunt will go ahead as planned.

“Everyone’s hoping that there will be a good report on not only the number of deer harvested during the upcoming shotgun season, but also the bow season, which is currently going on,” said Doug Welldon, member of Islesboro’s Deer Reduction Committee. “If those numbers go up, then we’ll be moving toward reducing incidents of Lyme disease.”

Following the third special hunt, Islesboro is planning to conduct a count of the island’s deer before taking any additional steps to reduce the deer population.

“This issue in particular has a very complex human-wildlife dynamic,” said Keel Kemper, regional wildlife biologist for the MDIF&W. “The department’s role is to assist, facilitate and guide these communities, without really telling them where they should go. That’s why there was a vote.”

In addition to Islesboro, DIF&W biologists are currently working with Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, where concerns about Lyme disease have prompted interest in reducing the size of the island’s deer herd. On Nov. 4 town voters will decide whether to allow deer hunting in order to thin out the area’s deer population.

“The issue of deer, Lyme disease and coastal Maine islands, that issue is just getting going by the looks of it,” Kemper said.

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