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Jim Kenyon: Vermont considers hunting changes for deer life

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, June 11, 2019

It’s not too early to start thinking about deer hunting — at least not for the biggest enthusiasts.

And as they await the arrival of autumn, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s 2019 state-of-the-state’s deer herd report gives hunters — and non-hunters — plenty to think about.

I came away from a recent Fish & Wildlife presentation by chief deer biologist Nick Fortin with a deeper appreciation for the vulnerability of the state’s deer herd.

That’s not to suggest the white-tailed deer is going the way of the gray wolf anytime soon. It’s not.

Although the size of Vermont’s deer herd fluctuates from year to year — largely depending on the severity of the previous winter — the population remains solidly above 100,000. This year, after a particularly harsh winter in much of the state, the population is an estimated 135,000.

Still, the health of Vermont’s deer herd bears watching. Many parts of the state are seeing smaller adult deer. The weights of fawns are dropping as well.

So what’s the problem?

“The quality of deer habitat is declining,” Fortin told about two dozen hunters and landowners who showed up at the White River Valley School in Bethel last month to hear from state wildlife officials. “Forests are getting older.”

About 85% of Vermont’s forestland is privately owned, which gives the state little control over how it’s managed.

“I sure wish there was more logging,” said Fish & Wildlife Board Chairman Tim Biebel, of Windsor. “It would benefit everyone.”

Shortly after being logged, forests offer deer — and a bunch of other wildlife — more food and cover.

With an aging forestland, a larger portion of the deer population is centered in and around agricultural lands where there are more abundant and reliable food sources.

Deer also are becoming suburbanized. Sometimes it’s through no fault of their own as human development encroaches on their habitat. Deer don’t seem to mind, though. In residential areas, they have to contend with fewer hunters and predators. (On the other hand, there’s cars.)

With more and more deer found “closer to people” there are bound to be conflicts, Fortin said. People don’t appreciate deer treating their flower beds as buffet tables.

Hunting also plays a big role in deer management, but demographic trends make that increasingly harder. In 2018, the state’s hunting license sales declined for the 11th straight year. Since 1970, sales have slipped from 147,380 to 61,438 — a 58% decline. Deer hunters — like Vermont, overall — is a graying group with most now between the ages of 50 to 70.

Fewer hunters, less habitat and smaller deer. That’s a lot for Fish & Wildlife to grapple with.

Next Wednesday, the 14-member Fish & Wildlife Board — one representative for each county, appointed by the governor — is expected to approve a package of rule changes to go into effect in 2020.

The biggest change involves the number of bucks a hunter can kill (or harvest, if you want to be politically correct). Currently, hunters can shoot up to two bucks total during archery, rifle and muzzleloader seasons.

Under the proposal, all hunters, except for youth hunters, will be limited to one buck per year. No doubt it “will take opportunities away” for some hunters, Biebel said.

It will force hunters to choose.

“If they harvest a buck in archery season, they’re giving up rifle season,” Fortin said.

The goal is to “reduce the harvest rate of bucks, thereby allowing more to survive to older age classes,” the Fish & Wildlife Department wrote in its deer management report released in March. (The report and recommended hunting rule changes to start in 2020 can be found on the department’s website at https://vtfishandwildlife.com/.)

Vermont has been shooting (no pun, intended) for larger bucks for a while now. Starting in 2005, hunters were prevented from bagging spike horns during rifle season. Most hunters I know supported the ban in hopes that it would result in bigger bucks.

But it’s no longer an effective deer management tool in some areas of the state, Fortin said. Fish & Wildlife is now recommending the ban be lifted in some areas, including parts of Windsor County.

With the state divided into 21 wildlife management regions, I suspect it could lead to some confusion. From my reading of Fish & Wildlife’s proposed hunting map, the shooting of spike horns would be allowed in most of Woodstock, but the ban would remain in place in neighboring Hartland.

Keeping hunters happy is a balancing act. As a Fish & Wildlife official said at the Bethel meeting, “Some people want to chase big bucks. Some just want to put meat in the freezer.”

Along those latter lines, Fish & Wildlife is proposing increasing the annual bag limit from three to four deer. Only one of the four, however, can be a buck.

The department acknowledges the change will raise concerns about “overharvest” of antlerless deer. But the plan is “focused on increasing the harvest in more-developed areas and pockets of higher deer density while maintaining current harvest levels in more rural areas.”

To help achieve the goal, Fish & Wildlife is proposing adding a four-day antlerless muzzleloading season for permit holders in late October and allowing first-time hunters of all ages to participate in youth weekend.

The archery season also would be expanded by two weeks with opening day moving to mid-September.

“Archery hunters are our best antlerless deer management tool, especially in suburban areas,” Fortin said.

The ban on shooting antlerless deer during the November rifle season will stay in place, however.

Said Fortin, “There are certain things our hunters won’t tolerate.”

Those that are left anyway.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.