How could there be any controversy about eradicating Lyme disease on Islesboro? The evidence from Monhegan is clear: no deer, no disease. Yet the recommendations of Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee for reducing the deer population to 10 per square mile with a special two-week shotgun hunt is generating a lot of debate.

At an informational meeting in late June, the committee laid out its findings and committee member Philo Hutchison, a founder of the Islesboro Sporting Club, said, “To reduce Lyme disease we have to reduce the number of ticks. To reduce the number of ticks, we have to reduce the number of deer per square mile to about 10 per square mile. Twenty doesn’t do the trick. The only way to do it is through hunting, probably with firearms. It may not be the best way, but it is the way that is way ahead of everything else we have tried.”

The committee was assigned to research the tick problem in spring of 2009, following a year when 18 new cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed among islanders, twice as many as the year before. Physician Assistant Allie Wood described the miserable short and long term affects of Lyme disease, pointing out its economic costs in lost work time and potential for long-term disability.

Two surveys on Islesboro have shown a dense deer population. Recently, the Topsham-based wildlife management company Santec Consulting calculated the probable population at 48 per square mile on Islesboro and 53 on nearby 700 Acre Island. Ten deer per square mile is the number generally accepted as the ideal number for keeping the deer ticks in check. Adult female ticks require blood from large mammals for reproducing, and low numbers of deer reduce the possibility that the ticks will successfully obtain that blood.

Committee member Linda Gilles described various disease prevention methods ranging from individuals simply checking themselves for ticks after a walk, to the costly sharpshooter at $750 per dead deer. With the number of deer on Islesboro, that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pesticides, she said, have proved unreliable. Keeping deer herds small is far and away the most certain prevention method of all.

The committee researched the deer herd controls used by other Maine island communities. Thirteen percent of the year-round population on Monhegan, where the deer population reached 100 per square mile in 1996, were afflicted with Lyme disease. An experiment with pesticides on deer to kill ticks did not work sufficiently well, and the residents decided to eradicate their herd, which they did by March 1999. They have reported only one case of Lyme disease in the past nine years, underlining the “no deer, no disease” premise.

However the Cranberry Isles model seemed to offer the best solution and the committee adapted it in their recommendations to the town. A special hunt limited to residents, landowners, and landowners designees, approved and administered by the Department of Inland Wildlife and Fisheries if the town approves, will allow shooting female deer and fawns, and will require that all deer be tagged on-island in order to track the count.

Objections raised by only a very few at the meeting generally focused on the fear of strangers in the woods with shotguns accidentally shooting residents and their children.  Hutchison, who conducts the hunter safety classes that hunters are required to take to get a license, pointed out that 15 to 20 years ago there was a much higher rate of hunting accidents in Maine with hunters killing other hunters and citizens, but that recently, he said, “Most hunting accidents come from hunters injured by falling out of their tree stands.”

While no one at the meeting stood up to defend the deer herd size, debate around town continues. Islesboro currently has an extended bow-hunting season regarded by many citizens as safe hunting. Hutchison was asked in a post-meeting interview why the special hunt is so controversial, and he said, “Lots of hunters like to have hunting on the island as it is now,” with the high deer population. “Bow hunting is much more difficult and a lot of people enjoy bow hunting where they have a better chance of success.” If the deer numbers are reduced to ten per square mile, bow hunting will become very difficult indeed.

Meanwhile, on island, so far this year there have been nine new cases of Lyme disease, five in June alone and, as P.A. Allison Wood said, “The season has only just begun.”

Committee member and past-president of the Sporting club Andrew Coombs said, “A special deer hunt isn’t what we want to do. It is what we have to do.”

The committee’s report goes now to the island Selectmen who will decide whether or not to follow the committee’s recommendations and put the special hunt before the town for approval.

Sandy Oliver is a freelance writer who lives on Islesboro.