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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

On Martha's Vineyard, Hunters and Landowners Savor the Bond

A Martha’s Vineyard property owner with a deer problem does not need to purchase enough high fencing with which to outfit a small youth reformatory. There is a less expensive, more fruitful option. Give hunting permission to a reliable Islander and reap the benefits of a symbiotic relationship rooted in Vineyard culture. Years ago, when the persona of the whitetail deer had yet to change from lovable Bambi to tick-carrying, landscape-munching pest, and the season was much shorter, a limited number of hunters — those fortunate to know landowners who allowed them on their property — annually whittled away at the Island’s slowly growing deer herd. The relationships between hunters and property owners, often of longstanding duration, were mutually beneficial and rooted in a tradition of sharing access and the Island’s natural bounty — venison, duck, fish and shellfish — that bound year-rounders and seasonal residents. Property owners valued their friendships with individual hunters who provided another set of eyes and ears to watch their house and land in the off-season. And since every group of Island hunters included at least one cousin who was a plumber, a property owner with a leaking pipe in August could be assured of receiving a return phone call, or even more extraordinary, during the bass and bluefish derby. However, as properties changed hands and large lots were subdivided many of those relationships began to disappear. To the dismay of hunters, new houses were erected in woodlots where deer stands once hung. Deer loved it, hunters not so much. The white tail deer is very adaptable and easily makes a home in any small thicket. The Island’s abundant patches of scrub oak and green briars provide first-rate accommodations in many subdivisions, and the best landscaped properties are the deer equivalent of a Whole Foods Market. Hunters are also adaptable. Where they may have hunted in groups they now hunt solo and use a bow in place of a shotgun when the available acreage is limited and the blast of a twelve-gauge is sure to cause alarm. And the savvier ones understand that whatever city the property owner may be from, the path to gaining and keeping hunting permission runs through the kitchen. Unlike beef or pork, venison is very lean, which is a plus for the health conscious. The notion that the meat is gamey may be true in sagebrush states but Island deer eat very well and a steady diet of acorns and Jardin Mahoney plants insures exceptional table fare. When I have the time and the outdoor temperature is cool, I butcher my own deer. In the process, I vacuum pack and set aside select cuts of venison and make up homemade venison sausage for later delivery to the owners of properties where I have permission to hunt. It is my way of saying thanks and they are tickled to share in the bounty of their land. Many hunters I know do the same. Or they bring bay scallops in season and clams. It is all part of a tradition that binds us to the outdoors and each other. The owner of one Chilmark property where I hunt appreciates the backstrap steaks (fillet mignon for a beef reference) but he is most interested in how many deer I have removed from his property. The more, the better, he says. A former medical researcher he is well aware of the connection between an increase in deer and tick-borne diseases. The Massachusetts Division of fisheries and Wildlife is also keen to see the Martha’s Vineyard deer herd reduced to what it considers a healthy number, as are Island public health officials who see deer density as the key factor in the rise in the incidences of Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis. To that end, DFW issues doe permits on request and only on the Vineyard and Nantucket, which has a similar deer problem, are hunters allowed to shoot four does per day. The deer hunting season is considered by wildlife managers to be the most effective means of reducing deer numbers. The season now begins in mid-October with archery, progresses through the two-weeks allotted to shotgun and ends with muzzle loader rifle in December. Reflecting concern over the growing deer herd, in August, DFW began the rule change process to begin the archery season two weeks earlier in four hunting zones in eastern Massachusetts, including the Cape and islands. In 2016, Island hunters officially harvested 767 deer, according to DFW, a significant number but not a record tally. In 2011, hunters shot 792 deer. On average the numbers have remained in the six hundred range for about the past ten years and 2017 season numbers, available this spring, will likely hit that mark. In an effort to keep the harvest strong, Island public health officials are urging property owners who do not now allow hunting to open up their land to hunters. Those with no cultural experience of hunting or weapons may be initially uneasy but often find that the hunter they know on their property is better than the hunter they don’t know. A woman who lives in Edgartown once asked me what she could do to stop hunters from trespassing. I said that hunters are very territorial. In that respect, they have evolved only slightly from the days of chasing the mastodon. I recommended she give permission to a responsible Island hunter. I told her that he or she would protect the property like a junkyard dog, and vigilantly guard against any unauthorized tree stands or interlopers. How to find a responsible hunter? Ask around. Talk to neighbors and year rounders you respect. Word will get around and hunters will find you. I realize that not everyone is able to pull the trigger on Bambi. But the next time the early morning smell of fresh coffee wafts through your kitchen as you place your cup down on the envelope that holds a hefty bill from a local landscaping service while you watch a deer munch away in the yard, you might just think to yourself: That deer looks pretty delicious.

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