Lyme Disease Changes Maine’s Deer Discussion

deer IslesboroFor more than a century, Maine deer have been managed for maximum populations that benefit deer hunters. But Lyme disease is changing the discussion, and is likely to force Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to reduce deer populations in coastal, southern, and central Maine – even while they struggle to rebuild deer populations in western and northern Maine.

As Mainers, concerned about Lyme disease, demand a reduction – or even the elimination of deer in their neighborhoods – DIF&W will be challenged, partly because hunting with guns is unwelcome in many of the places with the highest populations of deer. And of course, lots of land throughout the state is now posted and unavailable to hunters.

In 1997, a sharpshooter was paid to kill 52 of the estimated 70 deer on Monhegan Island, and two years later, Peaks Island voted to hire a sharpshooter. He killed 172 deer in February, 2000, in just five days.

“Where you remove deer, you’ll see a precipitous decline in the abundance of ticks,” Kyle Kemper, DIF&W wildlife biologist, recently told Aislinn Sarnaki of the Bangor Daily News. “The proof is in the pudding. They removed all deer from Monhegan, and the Lyme disease went away.”

Sarnaki’s September 11 story featured a debate in Islesboro, now considering a proposal to hire a sharpshooter to cull the deer herd and reduce the risk of Lyme disease. You can read Sarnaki’s story here.

Islesboro has had a deer hunt for many years, limited to bow hunters. But Kemp says, “It has become apparent to many on Isleboro that the special hunt’s really not going to get the job done.”

Sarnaki reported that in 2013, 53 people on Isleboro were confirmed to have Lyme disease. Out of a year-round population of about 550 people and a summer population of 1000, this tiny island accounted for 3.8 percent of all the Lyme disease cases in Maine that year. No wonder they are concerned!

My wife Linda and I were in Bar Harbor this past weekend, working on travel columns, and I got an update on the proposal to open deer hunting on a restricted basis throughout Mt. Desert Island. The proposal is controversial, but without doubt, the island is overrun with deer, and some kind of hunt is needed. But even a hunt may not be enough to reduce the threat of Lyme disease.

As that threat grows, you can expect that more nonhunters will demand reductions in deer populations.

No matter what your position on these issues, you should read Jim Sterba’s book, Nature Wars. From the sad to the sensational, Sterba tells us how and why burgeoning wildlife populations have “turned backyards into battlegrounds.” The chapter on deer is particularly informative.

The nation’s deer population now numbers more than 40 million, according to Sterba, up from an historic low of 350,000 animals in the late 1800s. “What we know definitely is that white-tailed deer populations are exploding, and we don’t have enough hunters (in many places) to reduce these populations. This sets up a major train wreck for deer-human conflicts if we don’t come up with an alternative,” said Terr Messmer, a wildlife damage specialist at Utah State’s Berryman Institute.

Sterba reports that, “Hunters kill more than 6 million whitetails each fall, but that’s not nearly enough to do the job.”

Something to think about as you dig out your bow or sight in your rifle for the upcoming deer seasons.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.