‘Crisis’ of deer overpopulation brings hunters, farmers and conservations together

Sep 10, 2023

A weekday evening gathering at the Dartmouth Grange brought residents from across Dartmouth and Westport together, including local landowners, conservationists, farmers, hunters and one state politician. The topic of the evening? Deer. More specifically, the overpopulation of white-tailed deer — and what to do about it. 

Our Herd, a group of farmers, conservationists and residents, hosted its second public meeting about the overpopulation problem Sept. 6. The relatively cordial meeting aimed to bring together residents, particularly hunters and farmers, to discuss ways to alleviate the problem in both the short and long term.

The most immediate solution involves landowners and farmers entering a formal, state-approved agreement with a hunter of their choice to allow them to shoot deer on their property. 

The problem… 

Deer in Massachusetts, absent traditional predators such as mountain lions and wolves, have increased dramatically in population over the past several decades. At the same time, hunting pressure decreased due to expanded land use and a reduction in legal hunting access. 

The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife says that a healthy forest can support anywhere from 6 to 18 deer per square mile. A recent study of Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary observed 56 deer per square mile, according to Gina Purtell, Program Manager for Coastal Resilience and Community Science at Mass Audubon. 

At Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Wareham — 151 deer per square mile. 

The effects of this overpopulation can be dire.

“We’re not just talking about a few heads of lettuce, we’re talking about hundreds of heads of lettuce,” said Deanna Levanti from Ivory Silo Farm. “We’re talking about plants that never used to be eaten by deer before … thousands of dollars of losses.”

“If you ask any farmer in the area what their primary problem is, they’ll say deer,” said State Rep. Paul Schmid. 

In addition to hurting crop yields, deer feast on and damage the native ecosystem in the region. The animals reduce the forest’s ability to regenerate, Purtell said, as they eat many of the saplings and seedlings in the area and cut down on the forest’s future growth. Deer also prefer native species to non-native, which means invasive species are given even more latitude to run rampant. 

“We know that not everyone wants to see deer killed,” Purtell said. “Can we actually influence people to consider once they see what’s at stake?”

With a higher population of deer, a higher population of deer ticks naturally follows. Our Herd organizer Amy Thurber said she no longer goes hiking on DNRT land because of the number of ticks she’d come back with every time. 

…and how Our Herd wants to address it

In the long term, Our Herd aims to raise public awareness about the overpopulation problem and lobby local and state governments to modify laws and regulations. But the group presented a key method for alleviating the deer problem in the short term: allowing hunters to hunt them. The group suggested that landowners enter an agreement with hunters for them to work on the property.

This kind of agreement is not new. Section 37 of the state’s General Laws dictates that landowners may hunt animals damaging their property. One caveat: if they wish for another person to do the hunting, they must employ that hunter or get special permission from the state.

Receiving that special permission is a principal concern for hunters and landowners alike. 

Hunter Jackie White from Westport said that MassWildlife previously “frowned upon” using the special waivers listed in the law.

However, Rep. Schmid said he’s received a promise from Deer and Moose Project Leader for MassWildlife Martin Feehan that he would process waivers for hunters and landowners who give him a call. Schmid added that Feehan and MassWildlife are looking to adjust how Section 37 works in the future, and are thinking about opening the season earlier.

“[Feehan] will be on this, and I want to know if they don’t follow through,” Schmid said. 

In any case, deer killed through Section 37 need to be turned over to the environmental police. 

Levanti recommended that farmers call MassWildlife and let them know about the crop losses they’re experiencing from deer. 

MassWildlife recently introduced two efforts to improve hunting access to deer: the state removed the limit on doe permits last year and also introduced its “Share the Harvest” program, where hunters can bring killed deer to a registered butcher that can process and package the meat, which will then be distributed to families in need. The closest butcher approved for the program is Ventura’s Meat Market in Fall River. 

Earlier this year, MassWildlife reported that the 2022 season set a new annual record of 15,853 harvested deer in the state.

A key purpose of Our Herd’s Sept. 6 meeting was directly connecting farmers and hunters, encouraging them to talk with each other and even set up a working relationship. 

Our Herd organizer Amy Thurber said interested landowners should have one experienced hunter authorized on their land. 

“As a landowner, you should vet your hunter,” White said. “You should know who’s coming on your property.”

One hiccup: some farmers may only own a small portion of a forest where deer are active. Deer may start to hide in neighbor’s parcels, Thurber said, which means interested landowners need to talk to their neighbors about the possibility of banding together and all signing an agreement with one hunter. Without an agreement, hunters on one parcel need to stay 500 feet away from abutting property.

Raymond Jesus, from Ray’s Firearms Training, offered to be the go-between for landowners and hunters, who can call him and get connected. 

Hunter Randy Souza asked whether the Natural Resources Trusts could get involved and potentially allow hunting on their property. 

“I’ve been a hunter in this town all my life, and all the land that the DNRT owns, I’ve hunted on or I used to hunt on,” Souza said. “And it’s shut down, so that’s a big problem … generations grew up on this property in this town, it’s not right.”

Linda Vanderveer, land manager at DNRT, said the trust is still in the “information gathering stage,” but they are listening to what hunters and farmers are saying.

“I hear what you’re saying, and the reason I’m here is because I hear what you’re saying,” Vanderveer said.

Next steps

Our Herd expressed interest in hosting a hunting workshop next, which would cover safe, ethical and effective hunting practices.

Rep. Schmid said he’d work to find more methods to combat the issue, and continue advocating on behalf of farmers. 

“I am bound and determined to do something about the deer crisis and help the farmers out,” Schmid said. 

A few longer-term goals were suggested by community members too, including a community cooler for deer storage and a doe-incentive program to pay hunters for harvesting does. Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, which has worked for years to limit the number of deer ticks in the region, implemented both programs on the island. 

Community members are welcome to donate to MassWildlife’s “Share the Harvest” program, Thurber said, which helps process and donate venison. 

Our Herd invited the public to attend MassWildlife’s next board meeting on Zoom on Sept. 13 at 11:30 a.m., when a Hunter Education Working Group meeting will be held. Our Herd itself is on the agenda for the Oct. 28 board meeting, which the public is also invited to attend.