West Tisbury resident Richard Huffam grabbed two hooves in one hand, two hooves in the other hand and his friend held the antlers. Together the two men heaved the deer from the pickup truck onto the scale, similar to one you’d see at the doctor’s office. Rebecca Digirolomo then pried the mouth open, and scientists examined the teeth. Behind them, a framed case held sets of deer teeth labeled with the corresponding age of the animal before it died.
But state habitat biologist Brian Hawthorne doesn’t need to consult the models anymore. “Two and a half,” he said. “106 pounds.”
This is Mr. Huffam’s third year hunting in the state forest, but it was his first kill.
Shotgun hunting season opened Monday, one half hour before sunrise and for the next two weeks, local and visiting hunters can use shotguns as well as bow and arrow and primitive weaponry to hunt deer for sport and food. Hunting season also helps keep the Vineyard deer population in check which, along with Nantucket, far exceeds the other counties in the state.
All hunters, regardless of their chosen weaponry (archery, shotgun, muzzleloader), are required to check in post-hunt at one of three Island sites and fill out paperwork with the state. Deer brought to the State Forest station are examined by two wildlife biologists, and data collected helps determine the size and health of the current deer population.
The first deer brought in Monday morning was six months old. The third deer was at least eight and a half years old, considered very old for a deer. In most areas deer don’t live past their third birthday.
Deer live longer here than anywhere else in the state, and they are considerably healthier, the biologists said. Antler diameter, measured slightly above the base, determines the health of the animal. When this measurement exceeds 15mm, the deer is considered healthy. Antler diameter routinely reaches 20 and 30mm here.
Hunters usually go out in groups, some local, some from Boston and Worcester, said Steve Purcell, owner of Larry’s tackle shop in Edgartown. Mr. Purcell has operated a check station at his tackle shop since 2004.
The Island’s deer population is significantly denser than the rest of the state, thriving in a region of open space and available food.
“It’s a good place to be a deer because there is so much food available in the forest,” Mr. Hawthorne said.
While hunting helps curtail some of the deer population there are not enough hunters to meet the state’s herd reduction goals. David Stainbrook, deer and moose project leader at the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, estimated that last year the local deer population density was 45 to 50 deer per square mile. Mr. Hawthorne said it’s hard to get an accurate count because there are so many deer, but he estimated the current number is similar to last year.
“It varies so much from square mile to square mile,” he said.
Excessive amounts of deer increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents, destroy vegetation and horticulture efforts and increase tick populations — all reasons the state tries to cut back the herd. “They do catastrophic damage to vehicles,” Mr. Purcell said.
Hunting in the rest of the state is limited to winners of a lottery, however on the Vineyard and Nantucket an unlimited number of licensed hunters can participate in the season. In addition, a few years ago the state extended the shotgun hunting season from one to two weeks to increase hunting activity.
During hunting season those walking on public lands are encouraged to stay to the paths and wear bright clothing. Hunting is forbidden within sight of public trails.
Visits to the State Forest station were sporadic Monday morning, but the biologists expected to weigh in several more during the afternoon and evening when hunters retire for the day. By the end of the week, 100 to 200 deer are expected to pass through the station.
The shotgun hunting season runs from Dec. 2 to Dec. 14. Check-in stations are open at Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown, the State Forest and the Tribal administration building in Aquinnah.