ISLESBORO — Early this decade, concerns over a large deer population – and the spread of Lyme disease from deer ticks – helped to unite residents of Islesboro.

But a special shotgun hunt for three years did little to thin the whitetail herd. And today, the island’s 650 year-rounds residents are divided over how – or even whether – to reduce it.

A deer reduction committee was established by the town’s board of selectmen in 2011 to implement a plan for reducing the deer population on the Waldo County island from 60 deer per square mile to 10, a level that biologists told the town would reduce incidence of Lyme disease.

That year the town received approval from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for a shotgun hunt using residents, a hunt that town voters approved by almost a 4-to-1 margin.

But the hunt was not successful in removing the goal of 100 deer per year. Fifty deer were shot in 2012, 36 in 2013 and 38 in 2014. A study conducted by the environmental science company Stantec found 50 deer per square mile in 2015.

Keel Kemper, a regional deer biologist for IFW, said deer densities are much higher on Maine’s islands. He estimates there are 20 to 25 deer per square mile in the mainland along the midcoast.

Confirmed cases of Lyme disease by the Islesboro Health Center remain high – with 13 percent to 17 percent of year-round residents dealing with the disease each of the past four years.

Sandy Oliver, vice-chair of the Islesboro Board of Selectman, put a tall fence around one of her gardens to keep deer out. She says since residents voted down efforts to reduce the deer herd, the town’s efforts will likely have to change to educating people about Lyme disease. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Yet when IFW proposed a sharpshooting program to reduce the herd, island residents rejected the idea twice.

“In 2014 and 2015 when the sharpshooting option came up, the community was fractured,” said Linda Gillies, who sat on the now-defunct deer reduction committee.

“People took sides and didn’t speak to each other. Now it’s still there, but time has gone by and people are learning to deal with it.

“Others are still angry not enough is being done.”

Bill Boardman, Bill Clayton and Gilbert Leach, left to right, talk about the deer population on Islesboro while sitting in the back corner of The Island Market on Islesboro. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Town selectmen also proposed petitioning the state legislature to allow the island in the state’s regular firearm hunt (using rifles), but town voters defeated it by a 2-to-1 margin. Now the only hunt on the island is the annual bowhunt held during expanded archery season.

“We’re sort of in limbo,” Gillies said. “We’re just treading water.”

Meanwhile, confirmed cases of Lyme disease on the island remain high. In 2013 there were 113 island year-round residents who had the disease, 88 in 2014, 83 in 2015 and 89 in 2016, according to the health center.

And residents remain divided over whether to cull the herd or live with it.

At the town market last week, six workmen sat in the back to share their lunch break and conversation. They blamed the Lyme disease problem on squirrels and mice, the boom in second-home development, even the realities of island life.

The ferry Margaret Chase Smith makes its way past Grindle Point Light in fog on Islesboro. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Gilbert Leach, 72, an island native and carpenter, said the development on the island exploded in the past 30 years and that made hunting more difficult.

“We used to hunt them (when we were) not supposed to. Then the island became so built-up and they became harder to hunt,” Gilbert said.

Josh Lindscott, another hunter, got Lyme disease a few years ago but said he probably got it on the mainland where it’s widespread. Lindscott said the Lyme disease problem on Islesboro is overblown.

“It’s not going to help shooting all the deer. It’s not going to get rid of it,” Lindscott said.

“Then you have all the birds and small animals who carry the ticks.”

Meanwhile, residents who are worried about the disease say they’re at their wits’ end.

“People here say if you get Lyme disease, it’s your own dumb fault, even people who are horribly sick,” said Sandy Oliver, a member of the board of selectmen. “The problem is everywhere. And it’s incredibly divisive. It’s pitted some of the summer population against some of the year-round residents.”

Oliver believes IFW should liberalize the hunting laws on the island or the Department of Health and Human Services should get involved.

Derreth Roberts has a strategy. In her flower garden at her home on Islesboro, she plants species that do not attract deer, like the daffodils in foreground, so that she doesn’t have to have a fence. Roberts, chair of the Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee, moved to the island in 2013 and says residents are becoming more aware of the signs of Lyme disease, and are seeking treatment earlier. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Derreth Roberts, a nurse who retired to the island in 2013 with her husband, Jim, also wants the deer herd thinned. Since they moved to Islesboro from York, Jim Roberts got the disease.

But Roberts sees no viable solution other than to step up education, which Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee did last year.

The committee created and distributed four detailed brochures covering different aspects of the tick problem, and it launched a website with more information.

It also put up more signs at the Islesport trailheads. In addition, starting in 2016, the Islesboro Health Center began tracking where islanders with confirmed cases of Lyme disease were bit by a tick – on the island or the mainland.

“One of the scary things about Lyme is it’s an equal-opportunity exploiter,” Roberts said. “It can touch people of every age. And it’s stealth. It’s an enemy you can’t always see. But what can we do now? We have to focus on prevention and awareness.”

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

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