“Once people heard guns, they didn’t hear anything else,” said Laura Houle, chair of the Islesboro Tick-Born Disease Prevention Committee. Concern about a special controlled hunt—with firearms—in a town accustomed to bow-hunting, in order to reduce the deer herd as a disease-prevention method, may have accounted for the solid turnout at special town meeting held on August 24 to address the problem of tick-born disease. One hundred and sixty-five seasonal and year-round residents attended; in fact, some were mistakenly convinced that they were there to vote on whether or not to thin the deer herd with firearms.

The Tick Committee had held an information meeting in late July at which they recommended that the deer herd be reduced through a controlled hunt using firearms, despite the long-standing tradition of bow-hunting on Islesboro. The article on the August town meeting warrant, however, that voters were addressing said, “To see if the Town shall support and establish a wildlife management plan with the goal of reducing the deer population to 10 deer per square mile and maintaining the population at that level, in order to reduce the incidence of Tick Borne Disease.”

Houle began the discussion with an amendment to the article made to clarify that all the town was voting on was to develop a plan for dealing with the problem and that voters will have the further opportunity to accept or reject the plan.

The amendment specified that, “The plan will be developed by a committee of local residents appointed by the selectmen. The selectmen will take said plan and any subsequent plans to the voters for approval.” The amendment was overwhelmingly approved by written ballot, and the final article accepted by 100 yes votes over 28 no votes.

In hindsight Houle said, in a recent interview, that she wished the committee had never mentioned guns in their original recommendations to the town. When asked why the committee suggested firearms as a control method at all, Houle replied that once some municipalities in Maine and away concluded they had to thin their herd to control Lyme and other tick-borne disease, firearms in a controlled hunt was the most common method used.

Most of the discussion of the amended article centered again, as it had in the earlier informational meeting, on whether in fact Islesboro was over-populated by deer; whether they were the cause of increased tick-born disease; and whether firearms use was a desirable method to control the size of the herd.

Hunting and non-hunting residents reported anecdotally that they were seeing fewer deer in their yards or in the woods. Public Safety Officer Fred Porter observed that there were many fewer car and deer accidents in the past couple of years than he recalled occurring five to six years ago and commented that the island seemed to be seeing more disease even though there were fewer deer.

Some confusion seemed to remain about whether deer become infected with tick-borne diseases, and one audience member commented that birds and small animals carry and spread tick-born diseases as well. Committee member Linda Gillies reviewed the tick life cycle, which requires a blood meal from a large mammal like a deer in order for an adult tick to breed. Birds and small animals do indeed carry the disease, she pointed out, but it is the young nymph-stage ticks that feed on them. Without large mammals like deer, dogs and humans the ticks do not reproduce.

Concern over gun-toting hunters being permitted to hunt on-island during a limited firearms season drew the most anxious and fearful responses. Michael Boucher pointed out that many hunters are disrespectful and not careful about where they aim. He reported removing arrows from the sides of houses that he caretakes for and wondered aloud if hunters with guns would aim more carefully. He said that bow hunting had reduced the deer population already and said that the town ought to give the bow hunters more opportunity to reduce the deer herd before engaging firearms.

Gillies responded to concern among townspeople about losing control over a firearms season, however limited, by remarking that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) is willing to work closely with the town to design a hunt for herd control that will suit the town. “The commissioner of the DIFW has great discretionary powers,” she said.

Houle, asked if she had ever heard of a bullet coming through a house, said that there was an incident “years and years” ago, but that the required safety courses that hunters must take to get a license have diminished these kinds of accidents. Officer Porter, asked the same question, said he could not recall such an incidence since he began serving as a officer 20 years ago.

Houle commented after the meeting that, if the bow hunters can effectively control the herd, there is no reason not to go that route.

Meanwhile, the Islesboro Health Center reports that there have been 23 cases of confirmed Lyme disease so far this year, the highest ever, and 14 cases of tick bites with no symptoms for which patients received a one-time dose of antibiotic. Four other patients reported a tick bite, but because the tick was on the patient less than twenty-four hours there was no treatment. A tick must become engorged before it transmits the disease.

The vote authorized the Board of Selectmen to assemble a list of names of people willing to serve on a committee to devise a management plan. The committee remains to be appointed. Ms. Houle commented, “The next step has to be considerate of the whole picture.” The process of controlling the disease is going to take a long time, and will require continuing to count deer,” she said.

Sandy Oliver is a freelance writer on Islesboro.