The junior class at Islesboro Center School is selling blaze orange hats, and the Sewing Circle is adding bright orange mittens and dog kerchiefs to their Christmas sale products in anticipation of the island’s December 10 to 31 Special Deer Hunt. A culmination of a two-year study and plan for reducing the deer herd and tick population on Islesboro, the three year Special Hunt was finally approved in September by the Advisory Council of the Maine of Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) which makes all rules about deer harvest in Maine. Now the Deer Reduction Committee has the job of implementing procedures for conducting the hunt.

In three meetings over the summer, the Advisory Council reviewed the town-approved proposal developed by the committee. The MDIFW traditionally makes access to deer hunting as open as possible to any hunter regardless of residence and one sticking point seemed to be Islesboro’s insistence that only island residents and their relatives be allowed to participate in their special hunt, which will allow shotguns in addition to bow and arrow. Islesboro has had a bow-hunting only season in place for years now; an extended season came into effect in 2003. Concern over firearm use in congested neighborhoods impelled the D.R.C. to make the residents-only rule to improve the chance that hunters would be aware of the location of homes, children, dogs, and walkers.

The committee, headed by Fred Thomas, surveyed landowners to see if they would allow hunting and what weapons they would permit and then worked closely with town assessor Vern Ziegler to map the survey results. The process revealed that a reasonable proportion, approximately sixty percent, of island acreage would be available for the Special Hunt.

The committee further developed procedures for qualifying hunters to participate and for landowners to use to manage hunting on their property.

Hunters must obtain written landowner permission and must carry it on them during the hunt. Because the Special Hunt period includes Christmas week, some island residents were concerned that hunting might limit holiday walks and winter sports. But Committee Chair Thomas said, “Property ownership trumps everything. Owners can dictate who hunts on their land, what days and even what times of day.”

All hunters must be Maine-licensed hunters and local residents or a resident’s immediate relative. Island property owners with habitable, taxable dwellings which they occupy at least part of the year, and their immediate relatives, also qualify. All participating hunters are required to attend a Special Hunt briefing to review hunter safety procedures. They must also pass a range exercise using the bow or shotgun they intend to use in the hunt. Once they complete these requirements, they will be issued a permit and vehicle identification card to post in the windshield.

D.R.C. committee member Laura Houle conducted one briefing session and range exercise in October, which resulted in nine qualified hunters. Because hunters have not used firearms for hunting on the island for several years, the range exercise was particularly useful. D.R.C. member Paul Hatch observed “People learned a lot that day about their own guns and about other peoples’ guns.” Houle, who also runs a tagging station, will run another briefing session and range exercise in November, and commented, “We’ll be lucky if we get twenty hunters participating.”

Since the start of the hunting season in September, the D.R.C. has encouraged all hunters, particularly off-island hunters to tag their deer on island at one of two tagging stations in order to gather biological data about the deer. Houle has tagged about forty deer, and Rachel Rolerson-Smith has tagged ten. They record each deer’s gender, determine whether they are an adult or fawn, take a couple of measurements on the horn and pull one of two lower front teeth. Between the tooth and antler information, biologists will glean quite a lot about the size, age, and over-all health of the herd.

The taggers earn $2.00 per deer, and Houle, who has tagged deer at all hours, said, “The $2.00 is worth it. I’m having a lot of fun. I love conversing with the hunters, hearing them talk about their prize. Hunting is a vital piece of what and who Islesboro is.”

Tracking the harvest helps the island monitor the deer population. In all likelihood a number of deer have been taken off island and tagged at a mainland station where a record is made of the place the deer was killed. Houle and other D.R.C. members suspect that there are a number of deer taken on island and carried off on the ferry which are never tagged and that information is lost. Maintaining a town-funded tagging station at the ferry would have cost several thousand dollars and was knocked out of the D.R.C. budget.

Islesboro’s large deer population, estimated recently to be close to forty-plus per square mile, increased the incidence of Lyme disease on island. In 2008 a sudden increase of Lyme disease to eighteen cases raised a red flag. There were seven cases in 2009 and 2010; 2011 had a record number of twenty-seven cases. In 2012, nine cases have been confirmed and two more are suspected. So far this year, Houle has observed deer from some sections of the island full of ticks while others seemed to have none at all. “Deer from Northeast Point have ticks all over them, tick on ticks.”

A healthy herd averaging closer to ten to fifteen per square mile has proven in other locations to reduce considerably the incidence of Lyme disease. In 2011, a town appointed committee formed to study the tick problem recommended, in addition to educating the public about protecting themselves from ticks, that the town reduce the deer population. That resulted in the formation of the Deer Reduction Committee which began meeting in fall of 2011 to develop a plan for conducting a Special Hunt.

Sandy Oliver is a freelance writer living on Islesboro.