CUMBERLAND – A new set of signs designed to discourage residents from feeding the town’s deer population is turning heads in this suburban community.

The signs, which sprouted around town last week, exhort residents not to feed deer in order to prevent the spread of tick-borne Lyme disease. The appearance of the signs has dredged up last year’s controversial proposal to ban the practice entirely.

“It’s been positive and negative,” Town Manager Bill Shane said of the response to the signs.

Cumberland alerts residents to important town matters with signs at 14 heavily traveled locations around town. The town has 10 different sets of removable signs, reminding residents of such events as winter parking bans, elections and the town Halloween party. In the past, residents have told him they appreciate the heads-up, said Shane. But there is something about the deer-feeding sign that has rubbed some residents the wrong way.

“They say it is Big Brotherish, too much dictating of lifestyle,” said Shane.

Shane said he struggled with the town’s sign contractor to get the message right but because of space constraints, it was difficult to hit just the right tone and not sound heavy-handed.

“It was tricky,” he said.

The deer-feeding controversy arose last year, when a resident asked the town to adopt an ordinance against feeding deer, triggering a townwide debate.

Shane said the woman had asked her neighbor to stop feeding deer after her husband experienced a rough bout with Lyme disease. The neighbor refused, so she went to the Town Council for relief.

The council has held several noisy meetings and public hearings on the matter.

“We can have debates about spending a half a million dollars on three new fire trucks and no one participates, but debate deer feeding, and you have strong opinions on both sides.” said Jeff Porter, a town councilor

The council ultimately voted 4-3 against an ordinance, with the majority questioning both the enforceability of such a measure and its effectiveness in Lyme disease prevention. The council decided instead to launch a public education effort to discourage the practice.

Lyme disease has burgeoned in Maine since it was first reported in 1986. The number of cases reported peaked at 970 in 2009. The number dropped back to 734 cases last year. The dip was probably an anomaly due to weather conditions and underreporting of the disease, said state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears. He said the upward trend in cases could continue.

Sears said he was unaware of any studies that linked deer feeding to the spread of Lyme disease. But if the deer are eliminated, as they were on Monhegan Island after a Lyme disease outbreak at one point, the disease disappears.

While the deer population is struggling, with a density of one deer per square mile in northern Maine in recent years, the population in southern Maine east of the Maine Turnpike is healthy. There, the population ranges from 10 to 15 per square mile to as many as 25 per square mile in some pockets, said Scott Lindsay, wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

While it is not illegal to feed wildlife in Maine, some communities have passed local ordinances prohibiting the practice. Wells adopted an ordinance a decade ago, after a Lyme disease outbreak around Drakes Island. People would feed the deer out of their cars, throwing lettuce and other vegetables. The deer congregated for the feedings and became a nuisance.

“It was very controversial,” said Bob Foley, a Wells selectman.

The feedings stopped once the town adopted a $50 fine for feeding the deer on the first offense, although no one was ever cited. Foley said the deer dispersed, Lyme disease abated and there haven’t been problems since.

“It really worked,” said Foley.

Lindsay said feeding deer is discouraged because it draws them across roads, increasing mortality, and promotes the spread of diseases, such as chronic wasting disease.

Wildlife officials are backing a proposal in the Legislature this session that would limit deer feeding to certain areas. Other states, such as Michigan, have totally banned deer feeding.

The Cumberland signs, which were originally scheduled to be hung in December, won’t stay up long. They will soon be replaced by bulky waste collection day reminders. But they will make a return appearance next December, said Shane, along with an education campaign on the town’s website.

“It would have been less of a headache with an ordinance,” Shane said.

Porter, who supported the ordinance, said deer are not the only problem in Cumberland. Turkeys are also running wild.

“They are scratching up the grass (on lawns) looking for grubs,” said Porter.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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