In a simpler time, wildlife managers kept deer herds at stable levels by issuing hunting licenses to hunters, who eagerly did their part in thinning the herd to a size that biologists considered optimal. Hunting remains the primary management tool used to control the size of the herd, but keeping island deer herds in check these days involves far more sophisticated measures. Deer management on Maine islands has risen to a combination of art and science, and wildlife biologists, trained to interpret the intricacies of habitat carrying capacity and animal biology, now find themselves at public meetings leading discussions on how to control hunters as well as deer.

“Nowadays deer management is as much legal, social, and psychological intervention and work as it is working with the wildlife,” says Tom Schaeffer, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s regional wildlife biologist for the downeast area. That is because people’s experience with island deer has gone from the occasional spotting of “wildlife” to eradication of nuisance pests.

On many islands, deer numbers exceed 100 per square mile. That’s at their biological limit, where the land’s carrying capacity, or ability to sustain them, is maxed out, and any increases would cause starvation. The impact on vegetation is noticeable. Hardwood and softwood trees (except spruce) can’t regenerate.

“On islands, you’re seeing virtually no vegetation that is within reach of deer,” says Gerry Levigne of the Maine Department of Inland fisheries and Wildlife (IFW). When it comes to Maine deer management, Levigne’s is usually among the first names mentioned. He speaks of deer in measured terms, of carrying capacity and optimal weight, habitat characteristics, and male-to-female ratios. Once deer populations reach such epidemic proportions, Levigne says, what was once a natural diversity of flora and fauna changes radically. Two non-native shrubs – barberry and a species of honeysuckle – take over in openings, because they are unappetizing even to voracious herbivores like white-tailed deer.

How did we get here?

You would think that such wholesale habitat alteration would cause alarm. But the change happens gradually, so people who don’t pay close attention to changes in nature grow accustomed to depleted or improverished vegetation. Islands in Casco Bay – Peaks, Great and Little Diamond, Cushing, Long, Cliff – and further Downeast – Monhegan, Isle au Haut, the Cranberry Isles, Swan’s Island – became so infested with deer, the animals were literally stripping the islands bare in their desperate hunt for food.

“On islands we recommend 15 to 20 deer per square mile,” says Gerry Levigne. “That would allow herbaceous plants and wildflowers to flourish. At 30-50 deer per square mile, you start seeing damage. If you really want the complete mix of native flora, you have to keep deer below 20. Not many have that low a density.”

Island deer populations didn’t reach crisis levels overnight; a combination of factors contributed to the problem, and once the wheels were set in motion it didn’t take long for island deer herds to grow exponentially. The factors all have to do with elimination of natural population controls. With natural predation eradicated by humans centuries ago, hunting remains the only serious means of keeping populations in check until habitat limitations cause either decreased reproduction or starvation.

Today it is difficult to imagine deer ever being in short supply. But in the early decades of the 1900s the Maine Legislature became so alarmed at the scarcity of deer that it moved to ban deer hunting in ten southern counties. A whole series of islands – the Cranberries, Swans, Frenchboro, Isle au Haut – have been closed to hunting for a century. In the 1950s, Vinalhaven, North Haven and Islesboro were re-opened to hunting. “The Hancock County islands never reopened,” says Levigne. “I don’t know what the dynamic was there. In the 1980s people on Cranberry and Swan’s Island began to complain about too many deer. But the islanders didn’t want to accept the obvious solution of re-opening hunting, out of fears that boatloads of gun-toting strangers would come tromping around the island, not knowing the lay of the land and creating a dangerous situation.”

When the City of Portland enacted a firearms discharge ban (that included archery) in 1972, any approval for deer killing on Casco Bay islands within city jurisdiction had to be approved by the city – and by the state, which technically owns the deer.

Given the circumstances, island people probably got comfortable with having a lot of deer around, perhaps even growing accustomed to not having a garden and not seeing native vegetation, because it was a gradual change. Then Lyme Disease changed all that. “It wasn’t until the emergence of Lyme disease as a human risk that people began thinking seriously about controlling deer,” says Levigne. “It’s why people on Monhegan, and Casco Bay island residents, voted to reduce their deer herds. On Monhegan, where deer were introduced in the 1950s, the vote eventually was to completely eliminate deer from the island.”

Island deer

Island deer had not only gotten out of control, they were running themselves into the ground. On islands where deer numbers are still thick as island spruce, they are poor specimens, weighing less than their mainland counterparts. “You’d see an island deer with spikes that looks like a 115-pound yearling, but it’s actually a four-year-old buck that should weigh half again as much, and sport eight points,” says Levigne.

On the back side of Great Cranberry island, the University of Maine conducted forestry transects and found hardly any hardwood seedlings. “Deer have changed the character of the forest considerably,” says David Stainton, a resident, adding that fruit tree survival was nil unless you caged the tree for ten years.

“They decimate everything in sight,” says IFW’s Schaeffer. “Native grasses and wildflowers disappeared, ornamentals disappeared. You go out there and it seems like a prison – everything is in an enclosure just to protect it from deer.” The situation had gotten completely out of hand when deer began occupying the niche of raccoons, climbing up porch stairs and tearing into garbage bags to get at the orange rinds. Going from one end of Great Cranberry to another, it wasn’t unusual to see 50 deer standing on lawns.

Poaching used to relieve some of the pressure, and what was locally referred to as “Cranberry Island lamb” went into local freezers every fall. David Stainton remarks half-jokingly that not enough poaching went on and the deer were getting too thick. Then IFW, in a statewide anti-poaching campaign, established a hotline that made reporting hunter infractions easier, and somebody got caught with three illegal deer hanging in their garage, prompting Stainton to remark, “We ought to declare open season on snitches.”

Thresholds of tolerance, both human and ecological, are often exceeded before action is taken. Islanders had crossed that threshold, and cries for action were heard along the coast from Peaks Island to the Cranberries; if they needed an act of the legislature to allow hunting on the islands, then they’d get one.

The Cranberries acted first. Ricky Alley led the islanders’ petition to get the law changed. Sen. Jill Goldthwait sponsored a bill to lift the hunting ban. At committee hearings attended by islanders, “there were not a lot of questions, and no one spoke in opposition,” says Alley. Before Goldthwait’s bill became law, a rider was attached that would allow other islands to vote locally level to allow deer hunting, skipping the cumbersome legislative process.

Being granted local autonomy doesn’t mean the start of open hunting season, it only means that islanders can decide if they want to work with the state to allow hunting on their island. In every case, that decision has been far from easy. On the Cranberries, the issue went before Town Meeting two years in a row before passing in 1999. “There was a cry of blood in the streets when in fact there was blood on the roads,” remarks Stainton.

Cranberry Isles residents worked with IFW to design a depredation hunt that would reduce the deer herd quickly and safely. The first year had a four-deer permit, which was restricted to landowners or their designees. “I gave the clerk names of four people that I knew were good hunters,” says Alley. “It worked out pretty well. I started bow hunting the first year of the depredation hunt and got all four. It’s never going to be as good again. The second year it was a different story. I got two shots and didn’t get a deer. But I had more fun getting nothing.”

When Cranberry’s latest deer season eliminated the four-deer bag limit, few outside people bothered to come out. The deer density, once over 100 per square mile, is down to a lot less now. You can still see deer, says Alley, but you have to go looking for them.

The Cranberry Isles became the working model for IFW and other deer-plagued islanders. Frenchboro Long Island residents had their first controlled reduction hunt last year. IFW determines the bag limit based on the size of the deer population, the habitat and number of participants in the hunt, which will continue this year.

On Swan’s Island the critical issue became one of public safety. Vehicle-deer collisions, already common, reached crisis level when a deer caused a car driven by a couple teenagers to roll over. In trying to respond to the emergency, the fire truck hit a deer and almost crashed. They said “enough is enough,” and called IFW’s Tom Schaeffer.

Swan’s had its second reduction hunt season last fall, and Schaeffer admits the process hasn’t gone smoothly. “It was brought on too quickly, without much planning. We didn’t have opportunity to build consensus among the island residents. There were some unhappy landowners the first year who didn’t like the speed and manner in which it happened. We’re looking at another one or two years of controlled reduction effort. At the town meeting this March, the majority voted to restore open deer hunting starting in 2004.

IFW allayed fears of strange hunters gunning the island to pieces by convincing the public that less deer removes the attraction. “When they do restore the open hunting season there isn’t going to be the attraction of easy pickings, because the deer will be scarce. No one is going to pack up and pay the round trip ferry ticket and go through the hassle of sticking to a ferry schedule to go out there to deer hunt for the day,” says Schaeffer. Towns can also enact special ordinances that establish safety zones, regulating types of firearms, or even permit bow hunting only, as does Islesboro.

Isle au Haut is the last island that is still closed to deer hunting. Having half the island owned by the National Park Service poses a challenge to deer herd reduction there. Schaeffer says the islanders have previously voted down an article in the town warrant to deal with the deer problem.

As any islander will tell you, their island is different. “We need to start the process over every time,” says Schaeffer. “The year-rounders especially need time to come to their own conclusion. They are individualists who consider the island and its resources their own.” So when Schaeffer comes in and starts talking about the deer “belonging to the State of Maine,” it doesn’t always meet with their approval. Yet Schaeffer says as individuals, they don’t hesitate to fish in the ponds or hunt at a mainland camp, even though that’s in someone else’s town. “It’s got to cut both ways.”

Casco Bay

Portland’s ban on discharging firearms (and arrows) complicates the situation on Casco Bay islands, because once islanders finally reach the decision to control deer, they have to work with both the city and the state to get something done.

On Peaks Island’s 700 acres, the deer were an attraction for tourists streaming off the ferry. “People had names for each individual deer,” says Tom Fortier, Portland’s coordinator of island affairs. “People would go out to feed `Betty’ with their hands – it was like the Gray Animal Farm.” There are 20-25 deer on Peaks now. Two years after Monhegan voted to invite sharpshooter Anthony DiNicola to reduce eliminate their deer herd, Peaks voted to invite him to their island. He took 223 deer off, and an estimated 8,000 pounds of venison went to local soup kitchens.

Out of the Peaks project came the Casco Bay Deer Management Committee, made up of various island residents with different perspectives. The committee works out plans for Portland’s islands, which include Cliff, Cushing, Little and Great Diamond, and Peaks (the Town Of Long Island also cooperates). As a result of the committee’s work, Cushing has hunting by invitation only, while Peaks and the Diamonds went with depredation hunts. Cliff is “split right down the middle” about which way to go, says Fortier. “The residents still need to work the issue out.”

Somebody’s got to do it

Though he is intensively involved in research of non-lethal control mechanisms like immuno-conraception as well, it is the lethal element that funds Anthony DiNicola’s organization, White Buffalo, Inc. It is also the political lightning rod that has proven controversial to so many suburbanites in New Jersey, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Iowa. But as long as people continue to move into wild habitat and create a suburban-modified environment of fertilized and landscaped shrubs and gardens, DiNicola will be busy. He says he encounters the same social and legal obstacles from Minnesota to Maine, but takes them in stride. “Nothing changes, no matter how far I have to drive,” he says. “There’s the need but not the demand [for his services]. There’s so much conflict related to the issue. Everyone realizes deer need to be managed but no politician wants to take it on. Maine is easier because people have a stronger tie to the environment and have hunters in the family. In New Jersey, its hard for some people to comprehend that you can kill something and eat it.”

In the future, IFW is betting on a series of broad scale recreational deer hunting regulations to control island deer once the numbers are reduced to sustainable levels. This includes an expanded archery season targeted to islands, places where firearms limits are in effect, and densely populated areas. In 2003 IFW will be taking the limit off does and fawns. For those licenses though, the limit on bucks will remain at one. “One of problems is, hunters focus on large bucks,” says IFW’s Levigne. “That doesn’t control deer populations. The two-tiered license system, where you can get a license for one buck and one for unlimited does and fawns, will do it.”

In every community, it takes time to come to the practical and ecologically justifiable realization that humans are the deer’s sole predator. In order to prevent history from repeating itself: epidemic vehicle-deer collisions, stockade garden fencing, and fear of Lyme disease – hunting will always be part of the answer. Be alert: it’s not unusual for deer to swim two miles, so unless you live 10 miles from mainland on Monhegan Island, the deer will be coming back to your yard soon.