Culling an Island's Deer Population While Supplying a Food Pantry with Venison

Dec 4, 2017

Deer hunting season is open across the state. On Martha's Vineyard, thanks to a unique three-way partnership, hunters aren't the only ones showing up with expectations at the island's weigh-in station. 

Dick Johnson is a biologist with the island’s tick reduction initiative. He spends shotgun season carefully picking as many ticks as he can from the deer that hunters bring in to be weighed.

Dick Johnson removing ticks to be sent for analysis to UMass Amherst.
Credit Angela King / WCAI

“It can be anywhere from a couple to… well, it’s not unusual to find a hundred on a deer that’s got a bad infestation,” Johnson said, as he looked over a deer carcass.

The ticks are sent to a lab at UMass Amherst for DNA analysis, to discover more about what they are feeding on, their life cycle, and any diseases they carry.

"People are sort of amazed when I tell them what I do during hunting season. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but hopefully the results of this will be a little more information that will help us do something about tick-borne illness in the future.”

Johnson has been instrumental in a new program that pairs hunters with private property owners, opening previously closed land to hunting. He hopes it will reduce the overall deer population. He estimates there are as many 40 deer per square mile of deer habitat on the island, a density rivaled only by Nantucket, and he believes that needs to be cut by more than half to reduce the risks of tick-borne illness on the Vineyard.

For hunter Brian Athearn, opening private property to hunting makes sense, because, he said, deer monitor human behavior.  “They know when the kids come home from school,” he said. “They know how far away to be from the house. I think the deer have our number, we don’t have theirs.”

Hunters at the weigh-in station at the state forest.
Credit Angela King / WCAI

Driving out to where hunters were walking grids in the state forest, Athearn said bow hunting was a way of life for his family. “We’re filling our freezers with food,” he said. “I usually pack two freezers during deer season.  I use it to trade for scallops, I feed the family on it, and we use it for Christmas presents. We use it like wampum, you know—modern day wampum.”

The hunters came to the weigh-in station throughout the day, single hunters, and larger groups. Some were families, who brought three generations of hunters together. As the sun began to set, they arrived by the dozens.

But not all the deer were being kept by the hunters. Rebecca Haag, executive director of the Island Grown Initiative, was also at the weigh-in station.

She greeted hunters, saying, “I know you’ve got a lot of people to give it to, but if you got any extra, we’ll give it away and make sure it gets to the right people, okay? Thanks so much.”

Haag was trying to spread the word for hunters to take more deer than they can use, and donate the meat to the food pantry.

She said Martha’s Vineyard has families who need food assistance. “According to the US census bureau, about 11 percent of our population is living year-round along the poverty line,” she said. “And we know a third of our kids in the public school system are on subsidized lunch programs.”

The venison will be ground with twenty-percent pork to make it more palatable for those who aren’t accustomed to eating deer meat.

Credit Angela King / WCAI

“We’ve also developed two or three recipes from chefs on the island for how you can use the venison,” Haag said, “how you can substitute it if you’re just making chili, or venison stew, or tacos for your kids.”

Until the end of shotgun season, Haag’s truck will be at the weigh-in station, hoping to encourage hunters to help out. If she sees as many as 50 donations of deer this year, she says, she’d be delighted.

Advocates say it’s a win for hunters, who can enjoy a pastime they love, it’s a win in the effort to cut down on tick-borne illness, and it’s a win in the effort to feed the hungry.

Here's a link to Island Grown's venison recipes.