A collaborative program on Martha’s Vineyard aims to address the risk of tick-borne illnesses by reducing the deer herd, while also providing a food source for those in need.

The six island towns have been working to address the ongoing public health problem presented by tick-borne illnesses since receiving a five-year state grant in 2010. The initiative has been building up funding from each board of health and private donors.

“Deer play a role in the tick life cycle because that’s where the male and female tick meet in the fall [to reproduce],” said Edgartown Health Agent Matt Poole. “We’ve done a lot of public education on prevention, early symptom recognition and treatment, but if we don’t address the tick density and with that the infection rate … you are pretty much guaranteed to lose.”

Modeled after a program in Nantucket, the Martha’s Vineyard Tick Borne Illness Initiative has partnered with the nonprofit Island Grown Initiative, as well as field biologist Richard Johnson and Sam Telford of Tufts University, to provide hunters with the means and resources to take more deer during season.

The number of deer a hunter can take is determined by state permitting processes, but the cost of processing the meat and the limits of a hunter’s food needs tend to impose a natural limit, Poole said. The island boards of health worked with the state Division Fisheries and Wildlife to make the tagging and check-in process in their district easier for this program.

“Nobody wants to just kill if they don’t do anything with the food,” said Rebecca Haag, executive director of Island Grown Initiative, which focuses on food equity on the island and runs a program to gather local crops to supply the food pantry.

The initiative partnered with a local kitchen in Tisbury called The Larder, which is providing space on Saturdays for processing the meat. The IGI will have a truck parked at the check-in station to collect donated deer, which they will store in a freezer until the designated processing day.

Haag said the meat processed for donation will meet strict Department of Public Health regulations, working closely with the Food Protection Program at DPH.

The program also provides donated space for hunters to process meat for their own consumption at a lower cost than usual, thanks to funding from the boards of health.

By providing low-cost processing and a regulation-compliant way to donate venison to the island’s food pantry, hunters are expected to take more deer, reducing the herd, which is currently estimated at roughly 50 deer per square mile in forested habitat on the island, compared to 19 per square mile on the mainland. The intended result is a reduction in tick-borne illnesses.

In its first year, the program will run during shotgun season, which began on Nov. 27. Organizers hope to include bow season next year.

“Because we are on an island, we all share this common problem,” Haag said. “You can get town government and nonprofits working on different aspects of a problem to find a solution.”

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