Next week the deer hunting season shifts from bow and arrow to shotgun.
“You are up close and personal when you are in archery season, at 20, maybe 30 yards away,” said Walter Ashley, an experienced hunter on the Island. “With a shotgun, it’s not so critical.”
Mr. Ashley has been hunting for nearly 50 years, whether it be bow and arrow, shotgun or muzzleloader.
“I’d go if they had a stick and stone season,” he said.
Even with enthusiastic hunters like Mr. Ashley, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has struggled for years to manage the Vineyard’s steadily rising deer population, which is now estimated at upwards of 50 deer per square mile of forest, according to David Stainbrook, the deer and moose project leader at the state agency.
Mr. Stainbrook said the state hosts 85,000 to 95,000 deer, with densities ranging from 10 per square mile to the estimated 45 to 55 deer per square mile on the islands, the highest in the state. While the health of the herd is not yet in jeopardy, Mr. Stainbrook said the large population has been blamed for incidences of tick-borne diseases and over-browsing on endangered plants. The mild Island winters, good soil quality and abundance of vegetation all contribute to the large population.
“Hunting is our only way to bring the population down,” he said. “We want to balance ecological and anthropogenic factors. We don’t want deer numbers to climb to where we start to see damage to the habitat or herd. We also don’t want to see problems with communities; too many deer eating landscaping, vehicle collisions, tick numbers. And at the same time we don’t want them so low that hunters are unhappy that there’s not enough for their enjoyment and resources. It’s a balance.”
The deer population spiked throughout eastern Massachusetts in the 1990s, so last year the state attempted to expand hunting by increasing permit allocations. But for Martha’s Vineyard, the increase was ineffective.
“We aren’t selling all the permits we allocate for Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “Whereas in the rest of the state, we would sell out.”
Last year he said the state allocated 2,700 antlerless deer permits for the Vineyard, but only issued 1,429. Possible reasons for this include lack of storage and processing for deer on the Island, not enough land open for hunting, and that off-Island hunters are discouraged by a costly trip to the Vineyard, said Mr. Stainbrook.
This year the state is trying a new provision for Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to increase deer harvest. The possession limit of deer on the islands has increased from two to four deer per day. Steve Purcell, who mans a deer check-in station at Larry’s Tackle Shop, said it is too early to tell whether the new possession limit will affect harvest numbers. “During archery, if you get one, it’s tough,” Mr. Purcell said. “If you get two, it’s not unheard of with a bow. But anything more than that...it’s just unheard of.”
He said the shotgun season might be more promising.
But according to Mr. Ashley: “That won’t do a damn thing. If a guy is foolish enough to stockpile four of them but doesn’t have a place to store them, it’s going to spoil.”
Mr. Stainbrook agreed, noting a lack of refrigerated storage places on the Island.
“Hunters might only be willing to harvest two deer if they don’t have the space, then it’s not going to change anything,” said Mr. Stainbrook.
The Vineyard also has no deer processing facility. According to Mr. Ashley, most of the hunters butcher the meat themselves.
“There is no real place to get it processed. It’s a major problem,” said Mr. Ashley.
There are a few specialty butchers on-Island who will process the meat, but this is expensive compared to the mainland. In central Massachusetts prices range from $50 to $60 to butcher a deer, Mr. Stainbrook said. At Shiretown Meats in Edgartown, David Vaughn said it costs $150 for vacuum sealed venison.
“We do a very good job,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 50 years.”
He has butchered about 20 deer so far, “but it isn’t shotgun season yet.”
In addition to storage and processing issues, off-Island hunters are hesitant to come to the Island due to the added costs of the trip itself, including the ferry, a vehicle and a place to stay.
“Even I thought about coming out to the Islands to hunt,” said Mr. Stainbrook. “But it’s $400 just for a trip out there.”
He also said the vegetation on the Islands, specifically in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, makes for a unique and difficult terrain, where hunters need to be on the ground due to bad visibility and often must work in groups to drive the deer.
Not to mention the thick understory, added John Varkonda, superintendent of the state forest.
“If you want to see what it’s like, pick out a nice scrub oak bottom and try to walk through it,” he said. “After a day of hunting in the forest, they are very tired.”
Mr. Ashley said in addition to creating a processing facility for the deer, another solution for reducing the herd would be opening up more land. He remembers 20 years ago, when there were more large, empty parcels of land. Now these areas have houses or small developments.
“Areas with developments and houses are setbacks,” said Mr. Stainbrook. “It provides a refuge for deer.”
Mr. Ashley commended the Land Bank for their hunting program, which has hundreds of acres across the Island open to one or all forms of hunting, depending on the property.
Matthew Dix, conservation lands foreman at the Land Bank, said he has 120 registered hunters for properties this year. “When we first opened up the program, there was a lot of concern by direct neighbors,” said Mr. Dix. “Now given the effect that deer have on landscape for perennials and shrubs, a lot of land owners are enthusiastic about keeping the deer herd manageable.”
Tim Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum, said deer have been responsible for severely browsing two native lilies, the white-fringed orchid, blue-eyed grass and wild geraniums. He said the loss of these plants negatively affects biodiversity.
“When the deer eats a plant that a pollinator depends on, it affects the pollinator. And if a plant produces fruit, it affects bird populations that would feed on it. It’s all connected, and that’s the big worry when you have an imbalance in the population.”
But with an abundance of acorns covering the Island, deer are expected to stay healthy and fare well this hunting season.
“We have had a pretty good nut crop this year,” said Mr. Varkonda. “It might make it a little harder to hunt because deer are not going to be foraging. They don’t have to roam far and wide to look for food.”
And last year’s statistics show the population is in prime health, with Island yearling male antler beam diameters averaging 22.5 mm compared to the state average of 15 mm. The diameter of an antler’s beam indicates whether a deer has enough food to eat.
Biologists from fisheries and wildlife will be at the check-in stations starting Monday to evaluate the health and demographics of the herd. With this information and the harvest total, Mr. Stainbrook said he will be able to tell if the new possession limit affected harvest, and what more can be done.
“It might take a little bit of everything,” he said. “It might take the community working to open more land. Another might be increasing convenience of getting deer processed.”
The shotgun hunting season runs from Nov. 26 to Dec. 8. Black powder season is from Dec. 10 to Dec. 31.