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Editorial: Changes Threaten Vermont Deer, Forests

  • Ralph Edson, right, raises the head of the deer shot by his hunting partner Simon Mears, left, to show fellow Randolph residents Eric Messier, second from left, and Spencer Lamson, second from right, after weighting the animal at the Middlebranch Market and Deli check station in East Randolph, Vt., Sunday, November 27, 2016. It was the 44th deer checked in at the reporting station during the two week season. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, October 06, 2018

As deer season arrives again, it’s time to take stock of the cultural, demographic and environmental changes that are driving up the size of the herd, with alarming implications.

A recent article in Seven Days, the alternative weekly, covered much of the ground. The size of the white-tail deer herd in Vermont is currently estimated at about 150,000. Although that’s not a record, the deer are highly concentrated in some areas, where they present a nuisance to gardens and agriculture, a ready host for the ticks that carry Lyme disease and, more gravely, pose a threat to the forest itself.

Part of the context is well known. The number of hunting licenses issued to adults in Vermont has declined from 105,333 in 1990 to 62,813 last year, according to the state Fish & Wildlife Department, and fewer young people are taking up the sport as the current generation of hunters ages.

Climate change is also playing a role. As winters have become milder, severe weather no longer plays the big role it once did in culling the herd through starvation. For instance, Nick Fortin, a Fish & Wildlife deer specialist, estimates that only one winter in the past decade has been cold and snowy enough in Chittenden County to thin the herd.

Moreover, newcomers unfamiliar with and unsympathetic to the traditions of hunting are posting their land in large numbers. Seven Days reports that the number of acres posted according to state rules more than doubled in Vermont between 1969 and 2016, from 106,000 to 262,000. Officials estimate that at least three times that many acres are informally posted against trespassing by landowners who don’t register at the town office and pay the $5 annual fee.

A recent report by the Vermont Natural Resources Council highlights another factor. It found that the amount of privately held land in parcels of 50 acres or more is declining through development pressure, leading to “forest fragmentation.” That’s when roads, homes, utility lines and the like create clearings in forested habitat. The result for hunters is reduced access to large undeveloped tracts.

And the forest itself is put at risk by the abundance of deer. In some areas, deer have decimated acres of maple and ash saplings on the forest floor, meaning that the forest is unable to generate an understory of trees to replace the currently mature ones. Meanwhile, their browsing opens the way to an invasion of nuisance species. Chittenden County forester Ethan Tapper described the situation as “an existential threat.”

Fish & Wildlife is working on strategies to better manage the size of the herd, but its toolbox is hardly full. Climate change is here to stay, and cultural and demographic shifts are hard to combat. As editors of the Valley News know all too well from publishing stories and pictures related to hunting, no appeal to tradition or rational argument about the need to thin the herd is likely to succeed with those viscerally revolted by the idea of killing deer.

However, landowners who are not in that category but who post their land anyway should think seriously about allowing hunting by permission only. That way, they know that the hunters who traverse their land can be trusted to do so in a responsible fashion.

And parents who don’t object to the sport can potentially help to nurture a new generation of hunters by ensuring that their children get outside and into the forest regularly, so they are aware of and comfortable with the pleasures it affords.

Most of all, it is highly desirable that non-hunters converse with hunters about the experience and tradition of deer hunting. Hunters are often movingly eloquent about the beauty, quiet and solitude they find in the woods during deer season, and about how generations of families are bound together over the years by the shared experience. Hunting is deeply embedded in the rural culture of northern New England, and, even if they don’t participate, those who live here should try to understand and appreciate it.