Other islands embrace changes in deer hunt



BAR HARBOR — When residents go to the polls this November, they will consider whether to open rural areas of the town to deer hunting for the first time in 80 years. If the proposed deer management plan passes, the area will see winter depredation hunts by firearm followed by annual archery seasons every fall.

Bar Harbor is not the first island town in the area to consider allowing deer hunting. Since 2000, other Maine coastal islands, including Swans Island, Cranberry Isles and Frenchboro, have had similar votes. In each case, residents decided to allow hunting. These decisions have left Mount Desert Island and Isle Au Haut as the only two island communities that still ban deer hunting.

Local opponents of deer hunting have said repeatedly that there is no science to back the proposed management plan here. They say that because we don’t know how many deer there are now, and that because the deer we do have do not appear to have outgrown their area, there is no scientific basis for the hunt.

Members of the deer management task force, however, say that it is clear without science that the deer population has grown too big for comfort – that the growing number of car/deer accidents, landscape damage reports and Lyme disease cases show that the deer have outgrown their “social carrying capacity” – and that this is reason enough to thin the herd.

While it may not be scientific, the idea that deer can max out their social carrying capacity is not new. It is a legitimate reason for creating a management plan, according to biologist Tom Schaeffer of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Schaeffer, a member of the deer herd control task force, said that perceptions of an overextended social carrying capacity for deer formed the basis for similar hunt proposals on other islands. In each case, the plan has worked. Hunts have reduced, but not eliminated, deer populations, and complaints about accidents and garden damage have been greatly reduced.

“The deer are still there, but they are now wild animals, not living up near people’s porches and under their trees,” he said. “Those are the marks and measures we have used to measure the effectiveness of those programs.”

Swans Island selectman Dexter Lee concurred, saying on Tuesday that his town was basically overrun with deer before the decision was made to introduce hunting in 2000.

“You could not have a garden unless you had a major fence. And there were quite a few deer/car accidents,” Lee said. “Before, if there were four deer standing around and you shot one, the other two or three would just turn around and say, ‘what happened?’ And now they know.”

The annual hunts have not caused problems on Swans, Lee said. There is some anxiety lately about the early archery season that occurs, because it tends to draw people onto the island, some of whom hunt from their vehicles, even though that is illegal. Game wardens seldom patrol on Swans.

The hunts also have caused residents to change their behavior. People have to be careful when they are around the woods, and clothe themselves with bright colors. But the inconvenience has been worth it, Lee said.

“You have to wear orange, but you can have a garden.”

The five islands that make up the Cranberry Isles have seen similar changes since hunting was introduced in 2001, said selectman and Great Cranberry resident Richard Beal. While there were no deer surveys, it was clear that not only had the deer outgrown their social carrying capacity, but their ecological carrying capacity as well. The herd was so large that the animals were just not healthy, he said.

“We had so many deer on the two islands, they were calling them grasshoppers. They were very small, and it was obvious that they were not getting enough food,” he said. “The deer were everywhere.”

The management plan on Cranberry Isles began with a six-week depredation hunt, allowing shotguns but no rifles due to safety concerns. A special bag limit of four deer per person was set. Over the course of six weeks, more than 100 deer were taken. Since then, the islands have been open to normal hunting seasons, albeit by shotgun. There have really been no problems, Beal said.

“That has worked out well for us,” Beal said. “Our population now is about 20 to 15 animals per island. We have enough that they still come out on occasion and look at us, and they’re friendly, but we don’t have this raiding of every bird feeder, and they’re good size animals.”

The islands have seen some tourist hunters in the fall, Beal said. About a dozen residents post their land as not open to hunting. “The islands being what they are, should there be someone who doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing, we simply stop and caution them about places they should stay away from.”

Baker Island is largely owned by Acadia National Park, and this island remains off-limits to hunting, Beal said. While all evidence is anecdotal, it appears that many deer have learned to shelter over there, he said.

“These animals are going to go where they’re not being scared by gunfire and all this other business. When it quiets down, they’ll come back out,” Beal said.

This idea that the deer will shelter in the safe haven of the national park also has been raised by opponents to hunting in Bar Harbor, where a large percentage of the town is controlled by Acadia National Park. This idea will be explored in greater detail next week.

The deer herd management plan is set for a vote on Nov. 4.

Robert Levin

Robert Levin

Former reporter Robert Levin covered the people, businesses, governmental and nonprofit agencies of Bar Harbor. [email protected]
Robert Levin

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