ConCom mulls plan for deer hunting on conservation land in fall

The Conservation Commission, through a subcommittee on deer management, is considering opening some selected conservation areas to bowhunting when the 2019 deer season begins next October. The first of three planned public meetings on the topic was held in Town Hall last Thursday, May 9. At least two more meetings are scheduled, also on Thursdays, May 23 and June 13, on topics related to deer population control and forest management.

As the deer population in Massachusetts has increased over the past 20 years or so, most Harvard residents have become aware of the problems deer can cause in flower beds, vegetable gardens, and orchards. What is less widely known is that a burgeoning deer population also causes damage in the forest. If deer are too numerous, they eat up the young saplings on the forest floor, wiping out the next generation of trees. They also consume the woodland shrubs and wildflowers that carpet the forest floor and provide habitat for smaller wildlife.

“Healthy forests will have complex structure with well-developed herb, shrub, sapling, and tree layers,” writes Thomas J. Rawinski of the U.S. Forest Service in a 2014 report. “Forests influenced by too many deer will develop simple structure characterized by sparse shrub and sapling layers.”

Concern for the health of local conservation lands led the Conservation Commission to set up its Deer Management Subcommittee, which began meeting in September 2018. Serving on the committee are Chair Robert Douglas, Paul Willard of the Conservation Commission, Tom Cotton of the Harvard Conservation Trust, and Jason Cole.

In a letter to the Press last December, the subcommittee members reported that the deer population density in Harvard was “significantly above” the ecological level recommended by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, as determined by a two-day study the division conducted in 2017.

Last week, the Conservation Commission and the subcommittee held a sparsely attended public meeting at which the guest speakers included Robert Dalton, the deer hunt coordinator for Andover, who explained how that town established criteria to grant a limited number of permits to bowhunters over the past eight years. To receive a permit, would-be hunters must be able to put three out of five arrows in a 6-inch-square target at 25 yards, he said. All bowhunting is done from elevated tree stands, Dalton said, rather than by hunters who are moving around the woods. He said the Andover conservation areas remain open for hikers, dog walkers, and others during hunting season. “There’s no safety issues with bowhunting—none at all,” he asserted.

South Shaker Road resident Margaret Kusner, however, said hunting would change the experience of walking in conservation land. “It sets up a tension when I’m walking to know there are hunters,” she said.

Kusner also asked if Andover had been able to show that its forest had improved since the hunting program had been implemented. Another guest speaker, Troy Gipps of Massachusetts Wildlife Magazine, said there appeared to be some improvement, but no systematic study had been done.

The meeting scheduled for Thursday, May 23, will feature David Stainbrook, a deer and moose biologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, speaking on suburban deer management in eastern Massachusetts. On June 13, botanist Dr. Robert Wernerehl will focus on forest regeneration and protecting plant diversity, especially rare plants in Massachusetts forests. Both events start at 6:30 p.m. in the Harvard Town Hall.

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