The town of Islesboro just made it easier on itself in its quest to thin its deer herd by extending its special firearm island hunt two months this winter. But that hunt aimed at culling the over-abundant deer herd remains a tough task because island residents refuse to allow use of rifles.

A year after crafting the island’s first firearm hunt, Islesboro residents, with the state’s blessing, this year extended the hunt from three weeks to almost three months, starting Monday to Feb. 28.

But they also voted down the option of making it a rifle hunt, putting the approved hunters at a disadvantage.

Last year, using their new shotgun hunt, the residents only took 52 deer off the island. A state wildlife biologist, Keel Kemper, said they need about twice that number.

“I think it’s fair to say they have their work cut out for them,” said Kemper, who is with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which approved the hunt.

“When we sampled all the hunters after the hunt last year, I gave them a little survey to get a sense how they felt it went and almost everyone said, ‘Well, if I could have used a rifle, I could have done a lot better.’ A shotgun is just as dangerous as a rifle but the perception is that it’s much safer.”

With a shotgun a hunter has to be much closer to the animal to kill it.

Kemper said a hunter with a shotgun needs to be about 35 yards from the animal to bring it down while a hunter with a rifle could succeed from 100 yards or more.

“It’s a little bit better than bowhunting but it’s more up close and personal. When you’re hunting with a shotgun, you have to be pretty close,” Kemper said.

Only residents or direct family can participate in the special hunt, which also requires that hunters pass a safety course on the island.

Only about 50 hunters participated last year. The same number likely will participate this year, Kemper said.

But those 50 need to show a bigger effort, he said.

“I don’t know what their effort was. They might sit home and play cards,” Kemper said. “I hope they will get out and get after it. I’d be happy with 100 deer. Then I’d feel we are making some headway.”

For years there has been an archery hunt on Islesboro, which has a population of 600. But the bow hunt is not enough to thin the deer herd, the residents agreed.

Last year the residents voted 100-28 to hold a firearm hunt with shotguns during three weeks in December in the name of public safety, to cull the deer herd and reduce the incidents of Lyme disease.

At the special town meeting last June, residents voted overwhelmingly, 110-28, to not allow rifles as an option, according to the deputy town clerk, Cindy Gorham.

At that same meeting, residents also voted overwhelmingly to extend the hunt through February, voting 83-37, Gorham said.

“It’s a wait-and-see kind of thing,” Gorham said. “Biologists say you know when the deer herd is reduced when the trees and plants look better. The deer have decimated the undergrowth in the forest. I don’t think we’ve noticed that yet. So it’s not safe to say we have reduced the deer herd.”

The population estimate done by an independent wildlife assessment company showed the island had about 50 deer per square mile, Kemper said. That estimate was done through a pellet-count study, which counts deer droppings across the 60,000-acre island.

Kemper said after removing 52 deer from the island in the 2012 shotgun hunt, the special hunt left the island with 30 deer per square mile going into the spring. But a new fawn crop in the spring changed that, he said.

On the island off Camden, the winters are mild, Kemper said, which means that the deer thrive.

After next year, the third year of the three-year state-approved hunt, IFW and the island residents will assess whether the special hunt has been successful.

“Then the town will decide how they want to proceed. Maybe they’ll consider other alternatives, like a sharpshooter,” Kemper said.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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