Bethel landowner Victoria Weber began to question the effects of deer on Vermont’s forests close to a decade ago, when she noticed stands of dogtooth lilies and lady slippers that were browsed and never grew back.
“We expect Vermont’s land to regenerate back into forest,” said Weber, “but if we don’t start managing the deer population now, that won’t be the case anymore.”
While the factors that influence forest regeneration are many, and complexly intertwined, said Nick Fortin, deer project manager for Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, deer population is one aspect to be looked at when examining forest health.
“Traditionally, in Vermont, deer have been controlled by hard winters,” said Fortin. But as winters have tended to be less harsh in recent years, the population of deer is starting to grow slightly.
Other concerns that could come along with an overabundant deer population, said Fortin, are an increased number of Lyme diseasecarrying ticks and property damage.
“The concerns aren’t new,” said Fortin, “But it’s also not a huge cause for alarm in most of the state.”
Paired with milder winters, the growing amount of invasive plant species, eager to take the place of native plants favored by both deer and humans, such as oak and maple, can make it harder to facilitate new tree growth in the forests, after deer browse the native plants, said Fortin.
How Many Permits?
To prevent deer from causing serious habitat degradation, he said, the best thing people can do is to hunt, or at least encourage hunting on their property.
“It sounds simple,” said Fortin, “but it gets more complex when you try to get people to agree on how to do it.”
Fortin noted that hunters are often the most active against efforts to raise the number of hunting permits— specifically doe permits—issued each year.
Vermont is the only state that does not currently allow adult hunters to shoot does with rifles, he said.
In 2015, The Fish and Wildlife Board was granted authority by the legislature to decide whether does should be killed during rifle season, a decision that has not yet been made by the board, according to Fortin.
Lifelong hunters Doug Bent of Braintree and Tom Ward of Strafford both take issue with efforts from the state to raise the number of doe permits issued, even during the muzzleloading and bow seasons.
“There’s plenty of browse [for the deer to eat] out there—maybe there aren’t enough deer!” said Bent.
“I’ve been hunting in Vermont pretty much my whole life—I just don’t see enough deer to believe they impact the forest now,” explained Bent.
Both hunters recalled seeing as many as 20-30 deer a day in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Certainly they did some damage then,” said Bent. “But I don’t believe more doe permits will help anything right now.”
“I’ll just never understand why the state wants us to kill more does. I think it has to be about money— I mean if you issue 40,000 permits and sell them at $10 apiece … that’s a lot of money, and money talks,” said Ward.
Non-human predators have little impact on the deer population, wrote Fortin in an email to The Herald.
In warmer areas of Vermont, such as the Champlain Valley and the Connecticut River Valley, noted Fortin, it is starting to become a struggle for hunters to adequately control the deer population.
Vermonters wishing to share concerns about the deer population, or the number of permits issued, can contact Fortin directly or their county’s Fish and Wildlife board representative.
-- ZOË NEWMARCO