How did Nantucket get so many deer?

Thousands of years ago, when Nantucket was still part of the mainland, deer roamed right out to the edge of dry land, miles beyond today’s South Shore. After rising sea level separated Nantucket from the mainland, isolated populations were driven to extinction by indigenous hunters. When English settlers arrived in 1659, there were no deer on the island, and no moose, bears, wolves, foxes, coyotes, skunks, or squirrels either. Nantucket’s year-round land-based animals consisted of voles, bats, snakes (and not many kinds of them), and the Wampanoags’ dogs. Today squirrels have made it to the island, apparently in shipments of lumber. The island remains free of the other critters that are now such a worry to our mainland neighbors, with the notable exception of the white-tailed deer.

Nantucket’s deer population (and very soon its deer problem) had its inception on June 3, 1922, when fishermen rescued an exhausted buck swimming in Nantucket Sound. They brought him to the island and released him. Three and a half years later—on February 23, 1926—summer resident Breckinridge Long purchased two does from Michigan and had them liberated in the vicinity of Squam Swamp to keep the solitary buck company. On April 15, 1935, two more deer were brought to the island “for the purpose of improving the stock.” By then the island’s inbred herd had become so large and such a menace to farmers’ crops that the first deer-hunting season to cull them had been held in February of that very year. The slaughter caused such indignation that an emergency appeal was made to the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who closed the season the day after it had opened. Contrary to attempts to reduce the island’s herd, three more does were added on April 15, 1936. They were set loose near Trott’s Swamp, about as far from Squam Swamp as one can get. Come together they all did, nonetheless, and the herd, the problem, and contrary public opinions persist unabated.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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