Seen and Herd
Does Vermont have too few deer - or too many? And either way, what should be done about it?
Ah, the sounds of autumn in Vermont. The honk of migrating geese, the thunk of a teenager's foot against a soccer ball, the crunch of leaves underfoot. And soon, starting on the first Saturday in November, the whine of the big-game hunter: "Where the bleep are all the deer?"
To hear Vermont's hunters tell it, the state's deer herd is in deep doo-doo. "There are serious issues with the condition of Vermont's prized deer herd," claims the website - www.hatvt.org - of the advocacy group Hunters, Anglers and Trappers of Vermont (HAT). In conversation, hunters are often more blunt, if not downright profane, on the subject. If you doubt that, just visit any gun shop; it won't be long before talk turns to the bedraggled state of the deer herd and the "damned fools" at the Fish & Wildlife Department with their deer-management policies.
But wait. All over the northeastern United States there are too many deer. They eat the flowers outside suburban living rooms, jump through picture windows and leap in front of speeding cars. Why should Vermont be an exception?
Maybe it isn't.
Two matters need to be understood. First, while deer hunting is an honorable and admirable pursuit - beneficial to both society and the environment - deer hunters tend to be whiny. They never think there are enough deer, and they insist that maximizing the deer herd ought to be the main, or even the only, goal of natural-resources management.
Second, you don't have to be a hunter to be affected by the deer debate. Birdwatchers, anglers or, for that matter, anyone who walks in the woods or cares about the natural world has a stake in this dispute. Which raises some interesting questions: What do we mean when we say "wildlife"? What is the purpose of natural-resources management?
Nonhunting city slickers may not even be aware that this dispute exists. Not only does it exist, but it's incessant and often intense. Fish & Wildlife is regularly assailed at the forums it holds, in letters to the editor, and in resolutions from rod-and-gun clubs over the department's management of the deer herd. And, because the hunters themselves do not always agree, the department can expect vitriol no matter what it does.
Broadly speaking, there are two factions in the deer hunting community: the trophy hunters who want more big bucks to shoot, and the meat hunters who want to be able to shoot just about anything they see. That second faction was mightily displeased by a new regulation, enacted last year, that severely limits the number of younger males - aka "spikehorns" - hunters can shoot. Those young males taste good. But, to look at it another way, every young male not shot stands a better chance of growing into an older, bigger male.
As it happens, it really doesn't matter whether Fish & Wildlife comes down on the side of Faction One or Faction Two. Wildlife biologists hold that weather and habitat are far more important in determining the size and health of the deer herd than the management decisions of mere humans. True, the herd is likely to be larger this year than in 2005, and maybe that spikehorn protection helped. But what helped more was the mild winter.
The general public's indifference to the deer-management debate is not without consequence. It means that the organized deer hunters so dominate the discussion that few dare to challenge their assumption that Vermont's deer population is in decline.
"Nobody really knows" what the deer population is, concedes David Hirth, assistant professor of behavioral ecology and deer management at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. "Is the population lower than at an earlier point? I don't know if you can make a statewide generalization."
Even HAT Vice President Ed Gallo agrees that parts of Vermont have more than enough deer. But in general, he says, "Sportsmen believe the deer herd has dwindled, and that's borne out by the annual harvest dropping off. It was close to the all-time low last year."
True. The figure of 8546 deer taken in 1995 was the lowest since the 7078 counted in 1988. But that doesn't prove there are fewer deer. Rather, there are fewer hunters - 80,476 last year, in contrast to 101,088 a decade earlier. Why the decline? Because young people today are far less likely to hunt than were their counterparts in earlier generations. Thus the median age of hunters is rising steadily. Perhaps hunters don't see or hear as many deer as they once did because they simply don't see or hear as well as they once did.
Advancing years could also explain the crotchetiness and downright irrationality that afflict some hunters. The ones who organize mass coyote hunts to protect the deer herd may kill a lot of coyotes, but not to the benefit of the deer. Coyotes do kill some deer, but not enough to reduce the population. In fact, by taking the weakest individuals, coyotes may strengthen the herd.
Besides, as just-departed Vermont Natural Resources Council policy director - and avid bird hunter - Patrick Berry puts it, "There's nothing you can do about coyotes; you shoot more, they breed faster."
Hunters are not necessarily wrong about the numbers: There may indeed be fewer deer. But what the organized hunting community will not concede is that perhaps there are as many deer as there ought to be.
In 1978, biologists estimated that there were 160,000 deer in Vermont. According to Charles W. Johnson in the 1980 version of his book The Nature of Vermont, there wasn't enough winter food for all of them. "Many of the animals that don't starve are malnourished or weakened," he wrote.
Now, Fish & Wildlife estimates a deer population of 110,000 to 125,000, according to John Buck, the department's aptly named wildlife biologist. Buck agrees with the hunters that the current population is too low and is working to build it back up, perhaps to 160,000.
But that could be too many. Why? Because, as hunters and scientists agree, the biggest problem facing Vermont's deer is loss of habitat - there's less than there was in the past, and there will be still less in the future. Deer habitat keeps getting transformed into people habitat.
Buck says that when he attended UVM in the 1970s, he and his friends hunted near Williston's Taft Corners. When an older friend of Buck's was at UVM in the 1940s, his hunting grounds were near Dorset Street. Shopping malls produce precious little browse.
For scrumptious deer browse, you need a forest. But to deer, not all forests are equal, and here is where things get more complicated.
"Deer are short," Hirth says. "In order for them to be able to get any food, it's got to be within 3 or 3-and-a-half feet of the ground. In a maturing forest, the good, continuous canopy overhead shades out a lot of new growth on the forest floor. There's not much browse available in maturing forest."
In other words, the kind of forests that some people - and many species of bird, beast and insect - find most desirable, deer and deer hunters do not. Deer love recently logged forests, regrowing but not yet covered by that thick canopy. They also like woods interspersed with meadows. Increasing the number of midsized clear-cuts may be the best way to maximize the deer population.
"So when you hear people moaning about West Mountain [in the former Champion Lands in Essex County] being a preserve in which there is not going to be any cutting," says Hirth, "they're correct when they say there are going to be fewer deer there than when the paper company owned that land."
But that's not all hunters say. Some of them argue that the mature forests found in wilderness areas and other preserves are "dead zones," devoid of wildlife.
As a matter of plain biology, this is nonsense. "What they're reflecting is the view that the term 'wildlife' refers to only one species," Hirth says. There may be fewer deer around West Mountain, but there are more songbirds, foxes, weasels and insects, not to mention more wild brook trout in the nearby streams. As former VNRC policy director Patrick Berry notes, some hunters prefer stalking deer in wilderness areas. They enjoy being in wild land, appreciate the challenge, and delight in the solitude. In fact, both the public and private sectors in Vermont are squandering an opportunity by not marketing wilderness hunting and fishing.
Here is where the deer debate blends into the more general discussion of natural-resource policy. Deer hunters oppose adding acreage to the Wilderness System, as they opposed the Champion land deal, because protecting forestland from logging also "protects" it from being managed for maximum deer density. Meanwhile, will no one even suggest asking whether maximum deer density is desirable?
Even environmentalists merely argue that preserving forestland will not actually reduce the deer herd. But that's true only if one ignores what economists call "opportunity costs" - that is, the costs of an opportunity forgone. Land not actively managed for more deer will eventually hold fewer deer. By refusing to confront hunters directly here, the greenies effectively concede the point that more deer should be the governing principle of natural-resource policy, instead of one goal among many.
The result is that hunters, a mere 15 percent of Vermont's population, have disproportionate power over decisions that affect everyone.
That power is institutionalized. Like most states, Vermont gives its Fish & Wildlife Department almost no money raised from taxes. Instead, the department is financed by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. So Fish & Wildlife is effectively still a fish and game department - once its official name - not because its biologists don't care about other species, but because it depends on the "sportsman" community for its sustenance.
The first step toward redefining wildlife as, well, wildlife would be to put the license money into the state's general fund, from which Fish & Wildlife would get appropriations as needed. Then the department's actual constituency would be the citizens of Vermont, not the rod-and-gun clubs.
Why does no candidate for statewide office make such a proposal? Perhaps because the ensuing whining could really scare all the deer out of the forest.