The numbers are in from the winter’s deer hunts in Casco Bay. Twenty deer were taken from Peaks Island, 25 from Cliff Island, and approximately 50 from Long Island. Growing whitetail deer populations are of particular concern for the bay’s islands, where milder winters and an absence of natural predators provide favorable conditions.
When deer have to compete with each other for edible plants, areas are heavily browsed. Apart from making it difficult to maintain home gardens and landscapes, this prevents the natural regeneration of forests and meadows. Consequently, invasive species, such as bittersweet and barberry, which are unpalatable to the deer, spread and become more established.
Deer populations on the Casco Bay islands gradually increased over the years as a result of an ordinance enacted by the City of Portland in 1972, prohibiting the discharge of firearms. In the 1990s, deer population densities on the City of Portland’s islands were very high and controlled hunting was first implemented to manage the deer on Cushing and Great Diamond Islands.
Every island within the City of Portland now has a deer management plan. Tom Fortier, the City of Portland’s Island Liaison states, “We have a deer management plan specific to each community’s needs. Every island has a plan and every island is different. They have a hit a good balance.” The deer management plans for these communities, which include Peaks Island, Cliff Island, Cushing Island and the Diamond Islands, are aimed at maintaining a population of 20 to 25 deer per square mile, a level determined using wildlife management principles.
Deer from high-density population areas will swim to less populated sites nearby. In Casco Bay, with the close proximity of islands to each other, deer that disperse from one island can impede population control efforts in place on neighboring islands.
The deer management plan on Peaks Island was first implemented 2000. Population density was estimated at over 100 deer per square mile. The City of Portland hired a sharpshooter, who reduced the deer herd by 234 at a cost to the city of $60,000. Four years later, the deer population on Peaks appears to have reached a balance. The deer population is now managed annually by a resident sharpshooter who culls the deer population by 15 to 20 each year. While the initial measures on Peaks Island came at a hefty cost, now deer management on all of the City’s islands costs less than $200 a year.
About the time Peaks Island started its depredation hunt, the Town of Long Island implemented a hunt to manage and reduce its deer population. Like Portland, Long Island has an ordinance that prohibits the discharge of firearms. To participate in the hunt, residents or property owners on the island who have a hunting license are required to get a permit from the selectman to discharge a gun on the island. Parameters for the hunt are set by the town’s deer committee. The town follows the regular Maine hunting season, but the deer committee has the authority to make variations on the hunting laws that are more restrictive. This year, to help cull the deer population, extra doe permits were issued to the Town by the State.
Previously, Cliff was Portland’s only island without a deer management plan, but that changed recently with its implementation of a depredation hunt in December, 2003. The objective of Cliff’s deer management plan is, through the efforts of local sharpshooters, to eventually reach and maintain a population of eight to 10 deer on the island. This December and January, the deer population was reduced by 25 deer. All harvested venison stayed on the island and was given to local residents.
Chebeague Island is part of the Town of Cumberland and participates in the state’s regular hunting season. Cushing, a seasonal island that is mostly uninhabited in the winter, also participates in Maine’s regular hunting season. However, as the island is all private property, hunting is by invitation only.
The implementation of deer management practices has been a controversial issue for some of the Casco Bay islands. While communities consider alternative control measures such as trap and transfer, contraceptives, supplemental feeding and reintroduction of natural predators, depredation or controlled hunting often proves to be the least costly, most effective and safest strategy for managing deer populations. An effective deer management plan relies on community support and participation. “Deer management really is a community partnership,” comments Tom Fortier, “in the sense that you need the cooperation of the city, state and the community.”
Dana Leath is a senior Island Institute Fellow based in Portland.