The deer dilemma

Bar Harbor voters will go to the polls next Tuesday to decide whether or not to allow a limited deer hunt for the first time in more than 80 years. Passions are running high on the issue that was brought to the fore by folks looking for ways to reduce damage to landscaping, cut down on the risk of car-deer collisions and reduce the incidence of Lyme disease in the area.

Members of the town’s deer task force have done a yeoman’s job exploring options and coming up with a recommendation. The task force’s dedication to holding numerous public hearings and giving everyone ample opportunity to weigh in during the process is to be commended. Sadly, some of those opposed to the final recommendation have sought to discredit individual members and unfairly impinge on the whole process.

If a hunt is to be conducted, the task force’s recommendations offer a reassuring degree of safety and unprecedented respect for private landowners – property owners would have to opt in rather than employ extraordinary efforts to keep hunters off their land.

The basic question, then, is whether killing deer is the right solution.

Too often, humans fail to ask what behaviors we might change to address a problem rather than modify the natural world to meet our expectations. Vehicles hit deer. And sometimes deer actually hit vehicles. One behavioral change we might make, as an alternative to thinning the herd, is to accept that unpleasant deer-human interactions come with living in an area rich in wildlife. Another such change in behavior is to drive more carefully in high deer population areas.

Deer don’t give people Lyme disease, deer ticks do. Deer, which are a vital part the ticks’ reproductive cycle, are easier to find, providing a target for elimination. Killing deer is more expedient than convincing humans to adopt a habit of performing regular tick checks and also following protocols involving proper clothing and repellant use.

And eliminating deer is far easier than successfully lobbying government officials and health care providers to make Lyme disease a higher priority for testing, treatment and eventual development of a vaccine.

One major flaw in the task force plan, as presented, is that Bar Harbor has massive zones where hunting is not permitted or the discharge of firearms is prohibited: Acadia National Park, other conservation lands, the entire downtown and village areas, and private property where landowners won’t opt in for hunting. There’s little left.

Surely deer from restricted lands will move into habitat where rivals have been eliminated after any hunt. Even with the use of bait, will the success rate be high enough to make a difference?

The bottom line: it’s the effects of deer, more than the size of the herd itself, that need to be mitigated. Homeowners should be encouraged to landscape with plants that are not deer delicacies. Finding innovative ways to curtail the Lyme disease-carrying tick population undoubtedly would be more difficult and expensive. But in the long run, such solutions could produce far more benefits.

The question voters need to ask themselves next Tuesday is whether or not the current deer population is causing problems serious enough to warrant upending Mount Desert Island’s longstanding and honorable tradition of living with deer, not hunting them.

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