Forest expert advocates for more deer hunting

Are Windham County's woods being taken over by deer?

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DUMMERSTON — Deer may be cute but they're also responsible for killing our forests.

Lynn Levine, a forester contractor, didn't want it to be true. "When they prance I can feel it," said Levine, who is a dancer.

But the deer have been attacking something even more precious to her — her forest.

Levine, along with three other forest experts, will be discussing how to deal with the deer population on Tuesday at the Learning Collaborative in Dummerston from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

"Deer in the Woods: Too Many, Too Few, or Just Right?" will discuss the history of the deer population and how to manage it.

Deer like to eat the saplings of native tree species. Not only does that kill new trees, but it gives space for invasive species to take over. Deer won't eat the invasive species, which means the invasives have even more of a chance of thriving.

This wasn't always a problem in the region. In the early 1800s, deer were struggling to survive, as settlers cleared land and destroyed their source of food. But after wolves and mountain lions were hunted to extinction the deer population saw a boom. By the 1960s the population had grown out of control. The population grew so much that the deer were growing smaller and less female deer were being produced. Eventually the deer "ate themselves out of house and home," Levine said. They started starving to death.

Deer are again experiencing a population boom, but many people don't realize it. People tell stories about when seeing 100 deer, back in the '60s and '70s, Levine said. One of her fellow foresters didn't believe her when she told him there were too many deer. He didn't think there were enough. It wasn't until she brought him into one of the forests that had been affected by the deer's overfeeding.

"He was just shocked," she said. He saw the clearings and eaten saplings, and he knew she was right.

When deer eat these new saplings they make the forest monocultural. Deers don't like the taste of black birch so black birch become the dominant trees. If a disease was to strike the forest, all the trees would be wiped out, meaning that birds and other species wouldn't have food or shelter. It also leaves room for invasive species to grow, such as Japanese barberry, buckthorn, multiflora rose and bittersweet. Invasive species start replacing food sources for birds, which can have a negative impact on their diets. Buckthorn, for instance, is believed to cause diarrhea in birds.

Invasive species can also be bad for human health. With Japanese barberry, ticks are 12 times more likely to populate forests, which could lead to higher rates of Lyme disease.

So how do you reduce the deer population without killing them all off? In 1995, Yellowstone reintroduced wolves into its parks to control the deer population. Levine isn't a fan of that idea for Vermont.

"I don't want to be walking alone in the forest and see a wolf or a mountain lion," she said.

Instead, she'd like to see more hunting, specifically of antlerless deer.

Hunting in Vermont has different rules and regulations depending on the region a person is hunting in. The regions are drawn by Vermont Fish and Wildlife. Windham County is in the O, P, Q and M region, though Levine's focus is really on the O, Q and M regions.

In these regions, the deer hunting season starts out with youth hunters and ends with the muzzleloaders. When hunting season starts it gets the deer all roweled up and harder to catch, Levine said. By the time it's muzzleloader season it's really hard to kill deer. Antlerless deer hunting is only permitted for youth and archery hunters. Muzzleloaders have to have a permit. It doesn't help, Levine said, that many hunters won't kill antlerless deer. Antlerless deer encourage the population to grow, meaning there's more game for hunters.

She wants to educate hunters on why they should be going after fewer bucks and more antlerless deer. She also wants to switch the hunting season around so that muzzleloaders hunt first. This way more deer end up getting hunted, and she wants to make killing antlerless deer more accessible.

To do this she needs to convince Vermont and Fish and Wildlife board members that there are too many deer. Dennis Mewes represents Windham County on the Fish and Wildlife board; he can be reached at 802-257-1633 or fwboard.windham@gmail.com. Kevin Lawrence is the board chair; he can be reached at 802-280-5884 or fwboard.orange@gmail.com.

Levine urges people who are concerned about the deer population to call Mewes and Lawrence. She also suggests that people consider hanging up "Hunting with permission," signs, rather than "No hunting," signs, to give hunters better access to deer.

"There's hope," Levine said. "We can turn this around."

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.


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