Bucktails, Deer Hunting, Scott Bestul, Rhode Island Deer Program

What do you do when you really, really, need a hunter to kill some deer? Simple. You make it worth his while. When he registers a whitetail he’s killed, you give him $150 for his trouble—or, rather, for his deer tail.

That’s what officials in Block Island, Rhode Island, did last fall. Like many suburban areas, Block Island—a 9,734-acre landmass off the state’s coast—struggles to control its whitetail population. “We’ve had estimates as high as 80 deer per square mile,” says Nancy Dodge, town manager in North Shoreham. “And the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) recommends about 10 deer per square mile. We have a high incidence of Lyme disease here, and people were getting really concerned.”

Hunting is legal on Block Island, but not on weekends or during school holidays. “We have hiking trails and open spaces throughout the island that are used heavily by residents and tourists alike,” says Dodge. “Basically, our hunters were telling us that in order to hunt, they’d need to take time off from work, and many couldn’t afford to do that.”

The situation originally led officials to contact a private sharpshooting company that helps communities struggling to control deer numbers. According to Dodge, Block Island residents weren’t happy with the proposed cull, or the price tag. “They guaranteed they’d remove 200 deer—with a lot of night shooting—for a $128,000,” Dodge says. “Our hunters told us ‘We can do better.’”

Block Island officials wanted to provide incentives for hunters serious about killing deer. “Our attorney looked into it, and found that we couldn’t let hunters sell meat or hides, and that it was illegal to offer a bounty for a deer,” Dodge notes. “But there was an exception for the tail; it was perfectly legal to pay hunters for that.”

So Block Island residents donated $70,000 for the project and, when the archery season opened last October, any hunter registering a deer (they had to present the entire carcass) could receive $150 for the tail. By season’s end in early February, the island’s bow and shotgun hunters had registered 400 whitetails, and Block Island had bought $6,000 worth of deer tails. “We were very pleased with the program and plan to offer it again this fall,” Dodge says. “And I’m told that some flyfishing companies actually want deer tails, so we might have an after-market use for them.”

I was somewhat skeptical when I first researched this story. After talking to Nancy Dodge, I think it’s pretty ingenious idea. It’s no secret that controlling deer herds in urban and suburban areas is difficult, and communities either have to be willing to lift restrictions and/or think outside the box to let hunters do the work. Or pay big money to solve their problem professionally. Obviously, buying deer tails is not a good (or even viable) approach in most places, and it could have disastrous effects in some. But in this case, a community came together, discovered a clever way to encourage hunters to kill more deer, and paid for it themselves. So, I say hats off to Block Island. And if you’re a flyfisherman needing material for hoppers or bucktails, have I got a source for you.