September 27, 2023

Deer Sanctuaries on Maine’s Seacoast Islands

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We continuously hear of Maine’s coastal islands, where many residents live, overrun with deer. Residents have had to resort to killing deer in order to limit the destruction the deer can cause. This perceived phenomenon has existed for a very long time and yet is incompletely reported as some sort of modern event without historical perspective to give people a full understanding of how common deer migration to the islands has been and continues to be. What might be lacking in all this is a rational explanation as to why.

The Portland Press Herald reports that, “Deer are surprisingly good swimmers and have found their way to islands all along the coast, where they face no threats from predators and gradually grow in number until they virtually overrun the communities.”

Let’s put a bit more historical perspective on this.

First, readers should understand that deer are not completely stupid animals. They are quite adaptive to their changing surroundings. An unrecognized example is that deer are learning to winter outside of their traditional “deer yards” because they are tired of being harassed by predators, i.e. coyotes, bobcats, lynx, etc. (bears in the Spring). I have witnessed this “phenomenon” myself. More people need to learn this fact as well.

Deer, not unlike any living creature, need to eat, have reasonable survivable habitat and exist in the least dangerous environment. These changing conditions force deer to adjust their habits and adapt…or die. These are some of the reasons we are witness to more and more deer, and other wildlife living in our backyards. Unfortunately, man haters can only see that this phenomenon exists because man keeps encroaching on the deer. Instead of understanding that man’s existence has created some of the best habitat historically for deer, which is a magnate for them.

But none of this is really new. In the book, “Early Maine Wildlife: Historical Accounts of Canada Lynx, Moose, Mountain Lion, White-Tailed Deer, Wolverine, Wolves, and Woodland Caribou – 1603-1930,” by William B. Krohn and Christopher L. Hoving, we read that, since the beginning of the time that man inhabited Maine, deer would swim the distances from the mainland to the islands to escape the natural predators.

In a multi-part series I did about the wolves written in this book, I wrote this about the island deer:

“This particular presentation I have chosen, comes from work done by a W. Wood in 1977, New

England Prospect. The writings were dated 1634. I believe the 1634 author was a Thomas Cotes
of London.”
“They [deer] desire to be near the sea, so that they may swim to the island when they are chased
by the wolves. It is not to be thought into what great multitudes they would increase were it not
for the common devourer, the wolf.
The wolves be in some respect different from them in other countries. It was never known yet
that a wolf set upon man or woman. Neither do they trouble horses or cows; but swine, goats and
red calves, which they take for deer, be often destroyed by them, so that a red calf is cheaper
than a black one in that regard in some places. In the time of autumn and in the beginning of
spring, those ravenous rangers do most frequent our English habitations, following the deer which
come down at that time to those parts. They be made much like a mongrel, being big boned, lank
launched, deep breasted, having a thick neck and head, prick ears, and a long snout, with
dangerous teeth, long-staring hair, and a great bush tale.
These be killed daily in some place or other, either by the English or Indian, who have a certain
rate for every head. Yet is there little hope of their utter distruction, the country being so spacious
and they so numerous, traveling in the swamps by kennels. Sometimes ten or twelve are of a
company. Late at night and early in the morning they set up their howlings and call their
companies together – at night to hunt, at morning to sleep. In a word they be the greatest
inconveniency the country hath, both for the matter of damage to private men in particular, and
the whole country in general.”
Even today, the deer move to the islands for protection. It is my contention that predators have historically driven deer, seeking safety, to the islands. Once there, they reproduce in numbers only somewhat limited by their surroundings. This rate of growth becomes a problem for residents who, in turn, take actions to limit the destruction the deer can cause.
It should also be understood that coyotes/wolves, if the conditions exist on the mainland, in which these large predators became hungry enough, they would also swim to the islands in search of a meal.
Certainly the fact that deer swim to the islands is not a modern day phenomenon.