Every year around this time, a group of three or four men boards a ferry to Peaks Island several nights a week with high-powered rifles, night vision goggles and other hunting gear.
From there, they fan out to various spots around the island and wait — often on porches or other discreet spots, sometimes for hours on end. If a deer comes along, one of the shooters will spot it, aim and pull the trigger.
These men aren’t poachers, and technically they’re not hunters either. In fact, they’re “shooters” sanctioned by the city and the state to keep the islands’ once-prodigious deer herd in check.
“The intent is to make sure that we maintain the deer,” said Mike Murray, the city’s island and neighborhood administrator. “We don’t want to eliminate them, but we don’t want to allow them to grow out of control again.”
Deer reduction programs were installed on several Casco Bay islands in the mid-1990s as local populations surged. The exact makeup of those programs differed based on what individual island residents would tolerate. Controlled culling in one form or another that was overseen by the state began on Great Diamond and Cliff islands sometime after 1995 (official dates from city and local officials were unclear and sometimes contradictory).
And on Long Island, which seceded from the city in 1993, a number of hunting permits are issued for a short period each fall to control the deer herd.
Although these programs showed rapid results, it took until around 2000 for residents on Peaks Island — the largest in Casco Bay — to endorse some form of controlled deer harvest. By that time, many of the most stringent opponents had come around: there was simply too many deer.
"I didn't live here then but my grandparents remember it well — no garden survived for a few years," said Rusty Foster, who lives on Peaks Island.
With no natural predators and a steady food supply, the deer herd concentrated on Peaks swelled to 250 or more. With that growing deer population came concerns about Lyme disease and problems.
With few options left, the city hired a team of sharpshooters in 2000 to reduce the number of deer on Peaks. In just a few nights, shooters outfitted with silencers and night-vision goggles killed more than 220 deer. The effort cost about $60,000 but seemed to pay off.
Scott Lindsay, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the combined efforts reduced the deer herd from more than 100 per square mile to 20 or fewer per square mile today. In a recent interview, he described the program this way: "It's needed."
Phil Bozenhard, a retired biologist with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, helped design the deer culling programs on city islands in the 1990s, and in the case of Peaks, in the early 2000s. He’s also one of four experienced shooters permitted by the city and state to harvest deer on the islands.
Then, as now, it's almost impossible to know how many deer live on any given island, he says. Deer are capable swimmers and can easily move from island to island or from the island to the mainland. In any case, trying to get a finite number is almost beside the point.
"People often say to me, 'Well how many deer do we have and how many do we want to get down to?'" Bozenhard said. "I don't know how many they have. It's not a point of contention because they swim from island to island. One week we could get it down to 10 deer, and a week later it could be (up) to 25 deer."
He believes deer-reduction programs have paid off. "I think deer population is right where we want it to be," Bozenhard, who lives in Biddeford, said this week.
In Portland, the program is staffed entirely by volunteers, starting with Bozenhard, who admits he’s become its “de facto” leader.
The program works like this: permanent island residents and city public works crews monitor a handful of bait sites on the islands. When the piles of corn kernels get low, they add more and also alert either Murray or one of the shooters. There are also motion sensor cameras at some of the sites to help determine how many deer have stopped by.
Once there’s been a certain level of activity, Bozenhard and other permitted shooters will head to the islands to monitor the sites in person.
Like most states, Maine’s deer hunt is heavily regulated. Hunters, for instance, can only bag a certain number of deer on certain days during the annual season, which varies depending on whether the hunter is using a bow, a rifle or a muzzle loader. Hunting is also banned at night and on Sundays.
But, as Lindsay, the state biologist says, the program on Casco Bay islands “is not a hunt. It’s a deer reduction effort.”
As such, fewer rules apply. Bozenhard and his colleagues can shoot from back porches and other spots off-limits to most hunters. They can also hunt at night, which they prefer. Some shooters use night-vision goggles to make the job easier, while others prefer gun-mounted lights to illuminate a passing deer.
Sometimes they see a handful of, and sometimes they come up empty.
"We sat there (the other) night for two-and-a-half hours and never saw a deer," he said.
Almost every deer that’s shot on the island stays on the island. Interested residents can sign up for a carcass, but there is one caveat: any recipient must butcher the meat themselves. The shooters are also entitled to at least one deer but must follow the same rules.
"Their renumeration is, if they wish to have one, they receive one of the deer for there efforts," Murray said. The entire program, which includes the cost of bait corn and ferry tickets for the shooters (but not their bullets) is about $500 per year.
Bozenhard said it's possible to bring the carcasses back to the mainland, but adds that he and other shooters generally try to avoid it.
"Bay Lines will take them if they're wrapped up, but typically we like them to stay on the island to reduce the human impact," he said. Asked to elaborate, he added that a a dead deer is not something most ferry passengers want to see.
This year, the city’s deer removal program began Nov. 1 on Great Diamond, Nov. 21 on Cliff and Dec. 1 on Peaks. Privately-owned Cushing Island holds a three-day shoot earlier in the fall. As of Wednesday, four deer have been removed from Cliff Island, 15 deer have been removed from Peaks Island and 11 deer have been removed from Great Diamond Island, Murray said.
There is some disagreement about whether a hard cap exists for the number of deer that can be shot each year (the state says there is no cap, while Bozenhard and the city say its 25 per island). In any case, the number rarely exceeds 20 on a given island.
Bozenhard says he decides when to call off the shoot for the season depending on how much activity they see at the various bait sites. Although the program can run into March on all three islands, the work is usually done much sooner than that.
To be sure, there was a contingent of islanders that were never thrilled about the annual deer cull, despite overpopulation and other problems. Yet as the program has continued, uneventfully, for the past decade (or longer on Great Diamond and Cliff), much of the controversy has died down.
“I wont say its unanimously accepted by all the islanders, but it’s overwhelming accepted by year-round residents who have had to deal with the deer infestations,” said Murray, who serves as city’s liaison for island issues.
"Now, I don't know of anyone that's against it,” said Foster, the Peaks resident. “There may be someone, but if so they've never expressed that to me. It just seems like an obvious necessity."
Deer are shown on a shoreline of Peaks Island. (COURTESY PHOTO)