As cool nights refresh lingering summer days and tinges of color appear across the Martha's Vineyard landscape, Island deer hunters are looking forward to the start of the 2022 archery hunting season on the first Monday in October. Non-hunters have good reason to take an interest in their success.
The whitetail deer is a critical link in the life cycle of the deer tick, which feeds and breeds on deer. And state wildlife managers peg the Island's deer density at more than four times the target level of twelve to eighteen deer per square mile. More deer equals more ticks. That adds up to one of the highest rates of tick-borne disease in the country. And there is another public health wrinkle: evidence of COVID infection has been found in deer across the United States and Canada, including on the Island.
During the 2021 December gun hunting seasons, state and federal biologists tested 558 deer in Massachusetts for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and active virus as part of a national surveillance program in 28 states. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) deer biologist Martin Feehan said 86 deer, including 14 of 26 deer in Dukes County, tested positive for COVID antibodies. The Delta variant was detected as the active variant in the state. In contrast, surveillance of deer in New York conducted predominantly in January turned up the Omicron variant.
"So it's very clear that the variants that are showing up with deer are tracking whatever the dominant variant is in the human population at the same time," Feehan said.
Public health officials said the findings do not pose an immediate threat to humans or deer. Feehan said there is no evidence of any risk to hunters and that the few cases of deer to human transmission in North America were all associated with close contact with captive deer.
Whitetail deer have it very good on Martha's Vineyard. And why not? The Island provides dense cover for shelter and an ample natural food supply, supplemented by a buffet of ornamental landscaping and gardens.
And there are no natural predators. DFW relies on hunters to keep the deer herd in check. But despite beginning two weeks earlier, last year's Island harvest was the lowest since the 2015 season, when above-average temperatures, and high food availability, limited deer movement when hunters were active.
Throughout the 2021 archery, shotgun, and primitive weapon seasons— twelve weeks in all—deer hunters on the Island harvested 667 deer. The year prior, they took 922 animals. In 2019, hunters took a record 1,119 deer.
"The twenty-eight percent drop on Martha's Vineyard is particularly concerning as it will likely lead to an acceleration in deer population growth," Feehan said.
About the harvest decline, Feehan said an abundance of acorns "likely impacted the visibility of deer as they spent less time moving to look for food."
"But it's clear," he added, "that the pandemic was the driving factor."
He said the East Coast saw a drop of about ten percent in deer harvest numbers, which he attributed to the end of pandemic restrictions. Members of the hunting community were focused on resuming business activities, he said, and had less time for hunting.
On the Vineyard, an influx of new residents staying year-round affected housing availability for off-Island hunters who spent fewer days hunting than they had historically during shotgun season. Property owners, normally absent during hunting season, who did not allow hunting was another factor.
Deer do not require a great deal of property to survive. In rural areas, the standard home range for a doe is around two to three square miles. But in urban areas, it can be well under half a square mile.
“And so they can essentially spend their entire life in a handful of blocks,” he said. “So, if you have properties that are closed to hunting, then you create a bunch of mini-refuges where those deer can't be accessed, and they don't need to go anywhere else because their home ranges are so small."
Deer density equals tick density. That is particularly true concerning the lone star tick, a relatively recent and aggressive arrival from the southeastern states. Once found mainly in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and on Chappaquiddick, the lone star is turning up across the Island. The lone star is responsible for alpha-gal syndrome, an allergic reaction to mammalian products, including red meat, dairy products, and some medications. "It's a life-changing allergy," said Patrick Roden-Reynolds, a public health biologist working in collaboration with the Vineyard and Nantucket boards of health on tick-borne disease education and prevention.
Roden-Reynolds said he found two lone star ticks this summer during a home yard survey in a Vineyard Haven residential district "with neighbors on both sides and a paved road right in front of the yard." He expects lone stars to continue to become more common.
An illustration of how deer impact tick density occurred this summer when a down Island homeowner called Roden-Reynolds about a doe that had been struck by a vehicle and died in his yard. The animal had only been dead for about three hours when he arrived.
"And by the time I got there, there were [lone star] ticks crawling on the logs next to the dead deer," Roden-Reynolds said. "There were still at least a hundred and fifty ticks, both nymphs and adults crawling on its ears and back of the neck. And I saw some fully engorged females that had dropped off. And, you know, those are the ones that are going to be laying eggs."
Roden-Reynolds told the property owner: "You should really think about spraying that direct area."
I would have been thinking of an air strike.
For more information, go to: dukescounty.org/mv-tick-program.
Stay Safe in the Field
Deer hunters have good reason to be concerned about ticks. We’re in the woods where ticks live, and if successful, we handle deer loaded with ticks looking to jump ship. My big fear is contracting alpha-gal. No burgers! No steaks! How would I live? So I’ve started taking extra precautions.
Insect Shield is a company that sells insect repellant clothing treated with permethrin. You can also send them clothes for treatment.
I recently ordered a shirt, socks, hat, and pants to wear when putting up stands and for tracking deer. I also sent in pants and a jacket for treatment. It's costly, but not when considering the cost of contracting Lyme.
I have three bottles of Sawyer Permethrin spray (available at Amazon) I’ll use to treat my boots, warm hunting pants, and coat.
If you hang deer in your shed or garage, spraying a plastic sheet with insect spray is a good idea. When the ticks drop off as the deer's body cools, they will die on the plastic sheet.
A version of this story appeared in the September 2022 issue of Martha's Vineyard Magazine.