It is impossible to determine the total deer population on the Island, although most hunters readily agree to two things: the deer are out there, they are just harder to reach.
With the Island deer shotgun season scheduled to start Monday and run through Dec. 8, there are reasons to expect a healthy if not record-setting number of deer to be taken. For starters, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife last year agreed to expand the season from six to 12 days to help reduce the number of deer ticks, the primary transmitter of Lyme disease.
Tick-borne diseases have reached epidemic levels on the Island in recent years.
In addition, recent winters have been shorter and milder, while the total area of woodlands on the Island — the preferred habitat for deer — has increased steadily in recent years.
On the surface it would seem like prime conditions for a banner hunting year. But not so fast.
While woodlands have expanded, the total acreage of farmlands and grasslands has decreased over the past few decades. And any hunter will tell you it is easier to bag a deer when they are grazing in the open than in the middle of the forest. Perhaps the biggest deterrent is that many large tracts of land are privately owned and are inaccessible to hunters.
Simply put, there are more places for deer to hide now than 10 or 20 years ago.
“There are plenty of deer out there, but there are also too many places they can go but the hunters can’t,” said longtime hunter Walter Ashley who runs a weigh station for bow and antique firearms hunters at C& W Power Equipment, his place of business near the airport.
Most hunters also say the addition of the second week of shotgun season is not the solution to reducing the number of deer on the Island and curbing tick-borne illnesses.
Many feel the shotgun season should instead be pushed back to the second week after Thanksgiving, when many seasonal residents and private landowners have left after visiting for the holiday. Others feel the season should be moved up to the week before Thanksgiving, so the venison can be harvested in time for the holiday meal.
The numbers appear to support the fact that the second week of shotgun season is not working as well as state officials intended.
Last year a total of 416 deer were taken during the extended shotgun season, up from 346 in 2005, but down from 448 in 2004. But the numbers are misleading because they don’t take into account the two other hunting seasons: archery season, which runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 24 and muzzle loading (black powder) season which runs from Dec. 10 through Dec. 31.
When factoring in those seasons, the overall number of deer taken last year was up only slightly from the previous year and substantially down from 2004.
And the addition of the second week of shotgun season means there is no week off before the start of muzzle loading season. Hunters say that with no buffer between the two seasons, the deer never have a chance to settle down.
The numbers from last year’s muzzle loading season support the theory: a total of 72 deer were checked in at the two Island stations, compared with 82 the previous year.
Brett Stearns, natural resource director for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said many hunters checking at the tribal weigh station in Aquinnah are reporting a healthy stock of deer this year. He said early returns for the tribal muzzle loading season — which is separate from the state black powder season and runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 24 — have also been positive.
“We had one [muzzle loader] who took two deer in one day from the same stand, and that’s always a good sign. The timing has been good . . . a lot of the bucks have been acting up and chasing the does [for mating season] and they seem less interested in the hunters,” he said.
Mr. Stearns said some hunters report seeing groups of five or six deer. He spoke of less rain and more acorns, which creates optimal deer hunting conditions.
Mr. Stearns said there is evidence the deer population here has stabilized.
“I think there are opposing factors at play here. The number of hunters has decreased over the years, while it has become harder to find large open spaces for hunting. It kind of evens out in the end,” Mr. Stearns said.
Mr. Ashley said hunters during the bow season have reported that the deer have been harder to reach.
“Many of the locations where hunters have traditionally found the deer are now off limits. I think hunters this shotgun season will have to work [harder] this year. But I could be wrong. You never know what’s going to happen from season to season,” he said.