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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Deer Harvest Ticked Up in 2023 Season





Successful Martha's Vineyard deer hunters have well-stocked freezers based on 2023 harvest figures released by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW). Over the three-month season that began in October, deer hunters harvested 846 animals in Zone 13, which includes Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

MassWildlife's Deer and Moose Biologist Martin Feehan said, "It was a good season, right in line with where we've been."

One factor in 2023 was the weather. Feehan said rainy weather at the start of the archery season had an impact across the state, which saw an overall total drop from 15,853 animals in 2022 to 15,520 in 2023. Nevertheless, the Island tally saw a slight increase over 2022.

Feehan said that based on harvest data, the state estimates the island deer population at 50 animals per square mile. However, he said that should be viewed as a floor because the actual number is likely higher when considering properties off limits to hunting.

The Nantucket Current, an online newspaper serving the distant island, reported a record 879 deer during the 2023 season. That represented a 7 percent increase over the 824 deer taken in 2022, the previous record. Nantucket hunters also set records for the archery (311 deer) and muzzleloader (135 deer) seasons.

According to the Nantucket Current, the island has one of the densest deer populations in the state, with approximately 50 per square mile, pegging the total number between 4,000 and 6,000 deer.


Island Tally Ticked Up

DFW said the Zone 13 breakdown was Martha's Vineyard, 821 deer (62 were harvested on Chappaquiddick), and Elizabeth Islands, 25 deer.

The two-week shotgun season accounted for the highest tally, 429 deer, followed by archery, 298 deer, and muzzleloader, 117 deer.



Broken down by weapon, the numbers show that many hunters choose to hunt with a bow or crossbow (337) during the shotgun (359) or muzzleloader (150) seasons.

Patrick Roden-Reynolds, a public health biologist, heads the Dukes County MV Tick Program and works in collaboration with the Vineyard and Nantucket Boards of Health on tick-borne disease education and prevention. Roden-Reynolds also managed the community deer locker sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society and the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) this season. The cooler provides a place for hunters who do not have access to refrigeration to hang deer. IGI and the Tick Program also sponsor a venison donation program. Hunters who donate a doe do not have to pay a cooler fee.

In addition, a program underwritten by a private funder pays hunters who bag three or more does a $100 incentive per additional animal. Hunters must bring at least three confirmed doe tags to the Ag Society for processing and use a bow or muzzleloader only.

"For the 2023 season, I checked in 90 deer (45bucks/45does), and we had 15 donations, another increase from last year," Roden-Reynolds said. "We'll be paying out $2,600 total across three hunters. I had one hunter check in 22 does."

He added that the season started slowly, but that changed in late November. "Veteran's Day was a big turning point when most of the deer started to be checked in. I stayed busy at the cooler from then on through the end of the season. I expect the 2024 season to be busier as more people learn about the cooler."


Lots of Ticks

Additionally, Roden-Reynolds said ticks were particularly abundant this year compared to last. "On my regular summer surveys, I was collecting two to three times more ticks than I did last year on some surveys."

Rainfall amounts were a factor. "MV had average rainfall in 2023 whereas 2022 was significant drought in the summer months, which I think played a role," he said. 

The whitetail deer is a critical link in the life cycle of the deer tick, which feeds and breeds on deer. More deer equals more ticks. Ticks hold in vegetation along trails with outstretched legs, waiting to grab onto a host creature that can provide a blood meal.

If that host is an unlucky human, he or she runs the risk of contracting one of many tick-borne diseases, a list which long ago grew to include more than the familiar Lyme and babesiosis. Depending on the species of tick — deer tick, dog tick, lone star tick — it now includes ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Borrelia miyamotoi, and Powassan virus.

The lone star tick is also responsible for alpha-gal syndrome, a recently identified allergic reaction to mammalian products, including red meat, dairy products, and some medications. Unlike the deer tick, which needs time to infect its host, a simple bite from a lone star is all it takes to trigger an allergic reaction in some people.

These include wearing clothing treated with permethrin, a long-lasting insecticide, and habitat management. Ticks thrive in damp areas. Cleaning up leaf litter, clearing brush around the yard and other recreational areas, and pruning trees to let in more sunlight will help keep ticks at bay.

Roden-Reynolds is also an avid hunter. So how does a guy who plans to spend a lot of time in Island tick habitat protect himself? He sends his primary work clothes and hunting gear to Insect Shield. The company applies a long-lasting permethrin treatment for a per-piece fee.

"Other than permethrin-treated clothing, I think the most important thing is to do a tick check," Roden-Reynolds said. "You hear it over and over, but that vigilance and being aware that you put yourself at risk and might have picked up a tick is the best way to reduce risk."

He said a hand-held mirror is useful. "You have to check your whole body, every square inch, and it's kind of hard to check your lower half when you're using a bathroom mirror."

For more information on the Dukes County MV Tick Program, go to dukescounty.org/mv-tick-program.



Why Hunting?

DFW had this to say about deer population and management in Massachusetts:

White-tailed deer are common in Massachusetts, and their population is increasing statewide. MassWildlife uses regulated hunting during three distinct seasons (archery, shotgun, and primitive firearms) to manage the deer population. MassWildlife's deer management strategy seeks to balance deer abundance with social tolerance and maintain deer populations below levels where major habitat impacts start to occur.

Deer densities vary widely in different parts of the Commonwealth. In most of central and western Massachusetts, densities are about 12–18 deer per square mile which is within the statewide goal. Densities can reach over 30–50 deer per square mile in areas of eastern Massachusetts and on the Islands where hunting access is restricted.

In areas of Massachusetts where there are too many deer on the landscape, tree saplings and seedlings are destroyed by over browsing. This degrades forest health and negatively impacts many other kinds of wildlife and plants. In areas where hunting is limited, there are more deer than the habitat can sustain. Without population management, deer become overabundant and can cause habitat damage and increased risks to public safety from vehicle collisions.

High deer densities are compounding impacts from climate change on coastal erosion along the shorelines of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. When large numbers of deer walk on worn-down trails along cliff edges, weak points are created causing cliff sides to break off. Bedding sites along the beach can damage the vegetation that stabilizes sand and prevents it from being washed or blown away.



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