With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it will soon be shotgun deer hunting season here on Nantucket and elsewhere across Massachusetts. Although archery season has been underway since October 5th and runs through November 28th, the most concentrated hunting activity takes place during the two-week shotgun season window, which is scheduled this year between Monday November 30th and Saturday December 12th (except Sundays). Depending on your perspective, deer hunting season is either something to look forward to or viewed unfavorably for a number of possible reasons. It is nonetheless a time-honored tradition and a necessary wildlife management strategy, especially in a location such as Nantucket where there are no natural predators to keep deer populations in check.
The history of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on Nantucket is complicated. Although this species is native to New England (with a range-wide distribution from southern Canada to South America), naturally occurring deer populations were extirpated from Nantucket long ago due to hunting by Native Americans. When the European settlers arrived on Nantucket in the early 1600’s, there were no deer here, nor were there any other large, native mammal species such as bears, coyotes, foxes or wolves. The present herd is descended from multiple deer re-introduced to the island during the 1920’s and 1930’s, beginning with an exhausted buck (male deer) found swimming in Nantucket Sound that was rescued and released by fishermen (for more info: https://nha.org/research/nantucket-history/history-topics/how-did-nantucket-get-so-many-deer/).
An aerial thermal imaging survey conducted by Mount Holyoke College in 2013 estimated that Nantucket’s deer population was roughly 2,000 animals, or approximately 40 per square mile. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) biologists recommend that a sustainable, manageable deer density should be 12-15 deer per square mile. Such overpopulation of deer is not a unique problem found just on Nantucket, but a trend across most of eastern Massachusetts. In locations with no or few natural predators, hunting is the primary population control strategy available, but high human population densities and less available open space for safe hunting are limiting population control efforts in this region.
Deer are classified as a game species by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife). The Division sets annual, legal hunting seasons that are open to properly-licensed hunters. Most of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s properties provide habitat for deer. Hunting during designated seasons (archery, shotgun, and primitive firearms) is permitted on many Foundation properties. At first, it may seem contradictory that hunting is allowed on land that has been acquired for conservation purposes. However, thoughtful consideration of the appropriate issues and advice from MassWildlife biologists have been incorporated into the Foundation’s policies regarding hunting on its properties. Our Board of Trustees has determined that deer hunting is necessary for the continued well-being of Nantucket’s expanding deer herd, the safety and health of the people who live on or visit the island, and the quality of the natural habitat that we all share. Below is a summary of some of the complex issues that have factored into our established deer hunting polices.
Unlike some portions of the white-tailed deer’s range, there are no natural predators such as wolves, coyotes or mountain lions to keep the deer population in check on Nantucket. Therefore, the availability of food and cover are the dominant natural factors that control the deer population. The vegetation on Nantucket, consisting predominantly of dense thickets of shrubs and trees, provides excellent cover for deer but is likely not capable of furnishing the nutritional needs of the over-abundant deer population we now have here. Wildlife biologists are concerned about the potential health of these animals should their populations continue to grow. Does (female deer) often produce and successfully raise 2-3 fawns during a single year. If hunting was not allowed, the overpopulation trends already taking place would quickly increase exponentially.
Unnaturally large deer populations overgraze native vegetation and destroy cultivated plants. When the number of deer increases beyond the ability of the natural habitat to support it, the vegetation that deer prefer to eat is quickly overgrazed, degrading forests and other native ecosystems and increasing habitat suitability for non-native, invasive plant species. In search of alternate food sources, deer turn to plants in landscaped settings, farm fields and cranberry bogs. The results are destruction of vegetation that degrades the natural habitat to the detriment of other animal species, loss of crops, damage to ornamental plantings and deer that can be malnourished and vulnerable to disease.
Deer overpopulation can adversely affect human health. The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), formerly known as the deer tick because it spends part of its life cycle feeding on the white-tailed deer, is responsible for the transmission of Lyme Disease, Human Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis- all of which are very serious threats to human health on Nantucket. Increased deer population numbers have been correlated with increases in infected deer ticks and incidences of these diseases becoming more widespread.
Deer overpopulation is a threat to human safety. An overabundance of deer causes increased risks for vehicle drivers. Deer are active during all times of the day, but are generally most active at dusk when they are attracted to the mowed, grassy edges of roadways. Collisions can occur when they become confused by the bright lights of oncoming cars, causing potentially life-threatening injury to humans and extensive property damage. Statewide, it has been estimated that the number of deer-auto collisions has been steadily increasing by roughly 50 incidences per year since 2016.
Deer population management is an extremely complex issue. As stewards of over 9,000 acres (30 percent of Nantucket’s total land area), the Foundation’s Board of Trustees is very aware of the responsibility it has to safeguard these conservation properties, while also considering the effects of its decisions on the island as a whole. Recognizing the many undesirable impacts that deer overpopulation would have on the Foundation’s properties, residents and visitors, and the deer population itself, allowing hunting on appropriate Nantucket Conservation Foundation properties is the most reasonable and responsible option available.
We encourage all visitors to our properties at this time of year to be respectful of hunters, keep pets leashed and wear brightly colored, highly visible clothing, especially during the two-week shotgun season window. Hunters should be alert and courteous to pedestrians, bicyclists, dog walkers and their pets, and other non-hunters who are out enjoying Nantucket’s open conservation lands. For more information on the Foundation’s hunting policies and which properties are open vs. closed to hunting, please see the Foundation’s website: https://www.nantucketconservation.org/properties/hunting/.
Stay safe, Nantucket!
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now! www.nantucketconservation.org