I hope some day we will look back at 2017 and say that it was the year the Vineyard community started to really do something about the problem of ticks and tick-borne illnesses. Certainly there are promising signs that we are starting to deal with the overabundance of deer on the Island. The boards of selectmen of all six Island towns have asked the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board to hold a public meeting on the Vineyard to consider changes to the hunting regulations that will allow hunters to harvest more deer. As detailed in last Friday’s Gazette, the Island Grown Initiative will be accepting and processing donated deer and distributing the venison through the Food Pantry.

The tick program sponsored by the boards of health of the six Island towns will be providing subsidies to make it less expensive for hunters to have their deer processed. The tick program is also working with Vineyard property owners to encourage them to allow hunting on their private property. While these are all important steps toward reducing the number of deer and deer ticks on the Island, I believe the most important will be how much land is opened to hunting.

One reason I say this is that during hunting season deer naturally gravitate toward areas with no hunters. Aerial photos taken after the end of hunting season show dense clusters of deer in areas where there is no hunting. The Vineyard already has plenty of swamps, briar patches and scrub oak bottoms where deer can hide. Properties where hunting is not allowed provide additional refuges for deer, making an already difficult task even harder.

A second reason is that much of the land where hunting is prohibited is in residential neighborhoods. Our yards already provide abundant food for deer in the form of gardens, shrubbery and yard edges. Add in safety from hunters and our yards and surrounding woodlands make pretty good deer habitat. Hunting season coincides with the time when female deer ticks are feeding on deer to get the blood meal they need to produce eggs. After they feed and mate with the males that are also on the deer, females drop off and lay their eggs.

Thus in return for your kindness providing food and shelter, the deer leave behind female ticks, each capable of laying thousands of eggs in your yard. Since many of us spend considerable time in our yards, it should be no surprise to find that that is where we get most of the ticks that cause tick-borne illnesses.

When you allow hunting on your property you not only help reduce the overall number of deer on the Island but also help make your yard safer. I urge homeowners, homeowner associations, and neighborhood groups to think long and hard about their hunting policies and the consequences, perhaps unintended, of those policies.

Over the past two years the tick program has worked with several homeowners associations and numerous individual homeowners to match them with a responsible hunter and devise a plan to allow safe hunting on their land. However, with roughly 60 per cent of the Island privately owned, we have just begun to scratch the surface. We will need the cooperation of many more Vineyard landowners if we are to significantly reduce the deer herd, the number of ticks and the incidence of tick-borne illnesses.

If you are willing to consider allowing hunting on your property, please call 508 693-1893 or email ticksmv@gmail.com, Dick Johnson for more information. I thank you in advance for doing your part to end the terrible scourge of tick-borne illnesses on Martha’s Vineyard.

Richard Johnson is an Island biologist and occasional contributor to the Gazette. For more information about the tick-borne illness prevention program, go to mvboh.org or email questions to ticksmv@gmail.com.