ISLESBORO — Residents voted down a proposal to hire sharpshooters to reduce the deer population at a special town meeting on Oct. 2 by a 148-87 margin. 

The group Concerned Citizens of Islesboro (CCI) petitioned the town to hold the meeting after the number of Lyme disease cases on the island skyrocketed from 11 to 86 between 2012 and 2013.

Lyme disease is spread by infected ticks transported by deer. The disease can cause a rash, fever, and flu-like symptoms. If not treated with antibiotics, it can progress to more serious symptoms, affecting the heart and nervous system.

If approved, the proposal would have had the town hiring professional sharpshooters to reduce the deer population on the 14-square-mile island to a density of no more than 10 per square mile. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) biologist Keel Kemper said the last count showed the deer population there is currently about 50 per square mile. Because of the isolated nature of coastal islands, the deer population can grow quickly.

“There can be as many as 100 per square mile,” he said.

Hiring professional hunters isn’t new to Maine. Kemper said the deer population on Peaks Island was reduced by hiring sharpshooters. Monhegan Island also employed sharpshooters to eradicate its deer population because of concerns about Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is only one concern when it comes to an explosive deer population on islands.  Deer/car collisions are another concern. And an overabundant deer population changes the natural habitat of the forest, Kemper added, because deer eat all of the plants on the forest floor.

“That’s also why no one can grow a garden without extraordinary fencing,” he said.

The terms of the Islesboro proposal were that the cost of the sharpshooters would be covered by private funds and the deer meat would be distributed to island residents. The deer would have been shot with high-powered rifles from vehicles or tree stands.

Linda Gillies, a member of the town’s deer reduction committee who supported hiring the sharpshooters, believes a majority voted against the proposal out of concerns for safety and in the belief that island hunters would reduce the population during the hunting season.

Gillies said the White Buffalo professional sharpshooters who were recommended for the work have an “impeccable record when it comes to safety.”

Island hunters have already tried very hard to reduce the deer population but haven’t been successful, she said.  The professional hunters report that when deer hear the first shot, they run and hide. Island hunters hoped to get at least 100 deer each year in a special hunt held the last two years, but only killed half that many, Gillies said. 

“They’ve tried very hard but I think that it’s going to be extremely difficult to achieve,” she said.

Gil Rivera, vice chairman of the deer reduction committee, said he voted against the sharpshooter plan because he thinks resident hunters can reduce the population. Rivera said that IF&W officials told islanders they will do all they can do help Islesboro reduce its deer population. But IF&W can’t provide hunters with “the same tools” as it could for the sharpshooters. 

Rivera said IF&W would allow the sharpshooters to use bait and gun silencers; illegal for resident hunters. Sharpshooters also are permitted to shoot from the back of their trucks.

“If IF&W would provide us with the same tools, we could do the job,” Rivera said.

Rivera thinks the deer population has decreased more than has been reported, the result of the last two years’ special hunts. He said hunters from off-island told him they haven’t seen as many deer when hunting.