November 18, 2012

Island takes deer problem by the horns

Islesboro residents will attempt to cull the herd to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease with their first-ever shotgun hunt.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ISLESBORO - Until now Islesboro's fall hunting season was a throwback to a simpler time, with only bow hunting permitted.

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Fred Thomas sits behind a year’s worth of research that he collected as chairman of the Islesboro Deer Reduction Committee. “It’s been quite a task,” Thomas said.

Photos by Deirdre Fleming/Staff Writer

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“The deer have nowhere to go,” said Linda Gillies, a member of Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee.

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But the island, just two miles from the mainland, will hold its first firearm hunt Dec. 10, when residents attempt to cull the herd on the 8,000 acres -- or 12½ square miles -- by themselves over the course of three weeks.

A dramatic increase in the number of Lyme disease cases on the island is leading residents to take matters into their own hands. They want to knock the herd down from as many as 60 deer per square mile to 10.

Culling an island deer population to reduce the risk of Lyme disease is not unusual. What makes Islesboro's deer hunt unique is that residents are taking a do-it-yourself approach by crafting their own shotgun hunt in a place that has never had one.

"As far as anyone can remember, there has never been a firearm hunt there," said regional wildlife biologist Keel Kemper in Sidney.

By a vote of 100-28, townspeople approved a firearm hunt open only to island residents (or their families) who pass a stringent hunting test and prove a shooting proficiency at the island's gun range.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Advisory Council signed off on Sept. 19.

Now state biologists and researchers are watching Islesboro closely to see whether the islanders can reduce the herd to a level that will reduce the number of Lyme disease cases.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread through a deer tick bite, which can easily go undiagnosed due to the disease's initial flu-like symptoms. But if left untreated, Lyme disease can cause severe joint pain and neurological problems.

Since 2003, a growing number of confirmed Lyme disease cases has been reported at Islesboro's health center.

Islesboro's year-round population is just 603, and grows to 1,500 in the summer.

In 2007, there were seven confirmed Lyme disease cases on the island. That grew to 18 in 2008 and to 27 in 2011, according to the town.

Culling a deer population on an island will reduce the incidence of Lyme disease because the tick that carries the disease needs deer as a blood host, said Peter Rand, at the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at Maine Medical Center.

On Monhegan Island in 1996, a sharpshooter paid by the town eliminated the entire deer herd and the incidence of Lyme disease dropped to almost none.

But never before has a Maine island community taken upon itself the work of culling a herd to reduce the public health risk.

"The hunt is completely unique, but islands are particularly subject to Lyme disease because the deer have nowhere to go," said Linda Gillies, who sits on Islesboro's Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee. "Monhegan was our beacon, and Dr. Rand was our guru. None of us knew about Lyme disease before 2008."

If successful, Isleboro's hunt could serve as a model for other island communities.

"We've been at this business for a quarter of a century," Rand said. "If we could find how far down you need to get the deer herd to see results, that could be a major public health advantage."

DEER POPULATION HAS GROWN

For generations, Islesboro has held a bow hunt, with as many as 100 hunters participating. Despite that, the deer population has grown beyond what the habitat can support, Kemper said.

The browse line in the forests proves it, with buds stripped along the bottoms of trees throughout the island.

And when an island's deer population explodes, so do cases of Lyme disease. That has been the case on Monhegan and Peaks islands.

(Continued on page 2)

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