Island hunters took nearly 800 deer during the 2017 deer hunting season, the highest harvest in at least 16 years, according to recently released state data. The news comes as Island initiatives continue to unfold to fight tick-borne illnesses by reducing the deer population.

According to preliminary data from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, at least 794 deer were harvested on the Vineyard during the 2017 hunting season. The harvest statewide was 13,220 deer, a new record high according to the state.

Preliminary numbers on the Vineyard show that 319 male deer, 365 does, and 110 button bucks (male deer six months old or younger) were taken during the fall/winter hunting season that ran from October through December. Final numbers will be available in the spring, state officials said this week.

The 16-year average harvest on the Vineyard has been 647 deer, with an upward trend in the past couple of years. Last year 767 deer were harvested on the Island.

Biologists and public health officials have been keeping a close eye on the Vineyard deer population as efforts to reduce tick-borne illnesses have focused on culling the abundant herd, which plays a role in the life cycle of ticks.

The deer population on the Vineyard is estimated at about 50 deer per square mile, or as many as 5,000 deer.

Richard Johnson, field biologist for the Islandwide tick-borne illness reduction initiative, said it isn’t clear what contributed to this year’s higher hunting number, since weather and other factors often play a role during hunting season. But he said he was hopeful that the effort to reduce the deer population could be gaining momentum.

“If we get one more good year then I feel like okay, now it’s a real trend — this wasn’t just one unusual year,” Mr. Johnson told the Gazette in a recent interview. He said it isn’t clear what it will take to reduce the total herd, but culling between 400 and 500 does a year would likely make a difference.

The uptick in deer harvest has coincided with a number of other efforts.

A deer donation program coordinated through Island Grown Initiative got off to a good start, IGI executive director Rebecca Haag said this week. Five deer were donated, accounting for about 260 pounds of venison. Most of the meat was donated to the Island Food Pantry, and about 20 pounds were donated to Island churches for weekly community suppers.

Donations covered the cost of butchering, which was handled by Jefferson Munroe at The Larder in Vineyard Haven.

“From our end we were very pleased,” Ms. Haag said. On the one hand, she said, hunters who are unable to process extra deer or didn’t need more meat were encouraged to keep hunting. And people also had access to fresh venison, which she said was popular at the food pantry.

“I think there are many other folks on the Island that are very supportive of reducing the deer population,” Ms. Haag said. “It is a viable source of nutrients and food for people on the Island who can’t afford to buy meat necessarily all the time.” She said former hunters who enjoy venison also appreciated the fresh meat.

Donations were only accepted during shotgun hunting season this year, but Ms. Haag and Mr. Johnson said they hope to expand the donation program to bow hunting season after hearing from archery hunters who wanted to participate.

“We’ve got all the infrastructure in place and all the details for next year,” Ms. Haag said. “We didn’t want to start too big. I think we can greatly expand next year and start working early with the hunters.”

Other efforts continue. Asking residents to open private land to hunting has led to about 100 newly available acres this year, Mr. Johnson said. And he described an ongoing effort to reach out to people who might have concerns about hunting near their property

Expanding the hunting season on the Vineyard in some way also remains an open topic for discussion. A year ago Mr. Johnson made the rounds to Island towns, seeking support for an effort to lengthen the hunting season. Island hunters made it clear that they did not support hunting in January, Mr. Johnson said, but other ideas are still on the table, notably an earlier start to the archery season.

Mr. Johnson said he is following the lead of hunters who have said they were interested in the idea. Ticks are active in early fall, he said, so culling deer during that time would help eliminate more ticks.

Changing the hunting season would require approval from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. A public hearing will be held on March 7 in Westborough on the proposal to extend the archery season, fish and wildlife officials announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is beginning to look ahead to a busy season of surveys and education. He plans to take a closer look at the Island deer herd and where ticks are most prevalent. The information will make it clear whether or not increased deer harvesting is effective, he said.

“If we reduced deer and the same number of ticks, that’s not a success,” he said.

The deer herd on the Island was last surveyed in 2012. Mr. Johnson said he would like to see herd assessments every five years or so.

Another potential project would involve handing out “tick cards” to residents and asking them to tape ticks they find on themselves to the cards, along with notes about the date, whether the tick was embedded, and where and when it was found. If a large number of people participate and hand in the cards, it could help measure where people are encountering ticks, Mr. Johnson said. The aim is to establish a baseline number.

Mr. Johnson is also working with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to create a map of deer ticks on the Vineyard, similar to a map of lone star ticks released last year. The map is slated for release this summer.

He has funding to hire summer interns, which will allow him to expand the number of tick surveys he is able to do around the Island. He also plans to make several presentations during the coming summer to continue educating residents and visitors about tick-borne illnesses.

While Mr. Johnson is leading the initiative, he said all the efforts depend on the community and financial support to be successful.

“I can no longer pretend to be doing this myself,” he said. He also said he remains convinced that reducing the deer herd offers the best hope of reducing the number of ticks — and the illnesses they carry. Reducing the number of white-footed mice, which reproduce quickly and have a much larger population, would be all but impossible, he said, and introducing predators into the ecosystem poses other dangers.

“I’m convinced this is the best chance of breaking the tick reproductive cycle,” Mr. Johnson said. “If it was simple, people would be doing it by now . . . [the problem] is not going to disappear overnight.”

For more information about the tick-borne illness initiative contact Dick Johnson at