One half hour before sunrise Monday, the season’s official opening moment — even earlier to make preparations — archery hunters across the state will walk stealthily into the woods to begin the six-week Massachusetts deer archery season.
Increasingly, wildlife officials, property managers, and local homeowners consider the archery season an effective management tool in the increasing effort to control deer herd growth. That is particularly true in highly congested areas where gun hunting is not always welcome or possible.
Island bow hunters took 157 deer in the 2009 archery season, of an overall total of 628 deer killed during the archery, shotgun, and muzzleloader seasons combined.
Last year’s bumper crop of acorns and mild winter provided ideal conditions for deer. State officials expect that the Island herd is healthy and numerous, but taking a deer by bow will be no walk in the woods.
Archers must rely on getting near to an animal with superior senses of smell and hearing in order to have a clear, clean kill shot. That distance depends on the skill of the archer and vegetation, but generally it is approximately 20 yards.
Another abundant acorn crop means hunters can expect to meet some difficulty patterning the movements of deer, Sonja Christensen, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s (DFW) chief deer and moose biologist, said. But there are plenty of deer.
“Relative to the entire state, you have a thriving deer population,” Ms. Christensen said in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “Obviously, we have been trying to bring those numbers down.”
A state hunting license allows a hunter to take two bucks over the course of the 11-week hunting season, which includes the shotgun and muzzleloader subdivisions. A special antlerless deer permit that costs $5 is required to take a doe. In some areas of the state, permits are given out by lottery.
On Martha’s Vineyard the state places no limits on doe permits. The effort is having some effect.
Ms. Christensen said the Island has a stable success rate of between 30 and 33 percent. That number represents the percentage of total antlerless permits sold that were later affixed to a deer.
In 2009, DFW sold 1,377 permits. In 2008, the number was 1,332. In 2007, the total was a little lower, about 1,100. “It’s been fairly consistent pressure in terms of people buying permits for your zone,” Ms. Christensen said. “And over time the deer population hasn’t changed dramatically over the last five years, and we’ve seen some slight, slight decreases.”
The Vineyard’s overall success rate is high when compared to the rest of the state. “For most zones, it’s around 15 percent,” she said. “That also indicates the two pieces of the puzzle when it comes to deer harvest: the effort that you put into it and just having the animals available to be hunted.”
Islanders go about their hunting business
There is no question that Islanders put great effort into hunting deer or that the animals are available. But, finding deer in the Vineyard’s thick woods is no easy chore.
Ms. Christiansen said deer like acorns. Studies in Connecticut have shown that acorns affect hunting. “Typically, when there is a high acorn crop there is a slightly lower deer harvest statewide, given all the other variables that come into play,” she said.
More acorns mean hunters are less likely to see deer. That was true on the Vineyard and across the rest of the state last year. “If they have abundant food all around them they really will not need to move as much,” she said. “That makes them less visible to people and less likely to pass in front of a hunter as they would otherwise.”
Asked for strategies, Ms. Christiansen advised hunters to focus on white oaks, a favored nut, and try to locate bedding areas from which the deer are not likely to stray very far.
Environmental Police Sgt. Matt Bass is responsible for enforcing wildlife regulations. Last archery hunting season, he was a vigilant presence in the woods.
Baiting and hunting on private property without the permission of the property owner were among the offenses he investigated.
In a telephone conversation, Sgt. Bass said hunters need to have the permission of the property owner on posted property, and should ask for permission even if the property is not posted.
“I find that for that landowner, just knowing who is out there and what is going on goes a long way to maintaining good relations,” he said.
Faced with the work it takes to pattern deer, some hunters are tempted to rely on attracting deer with bait, for example apples.
Baiting is against the law in Massachusetts. “Anything a deer might ingest cannot be placed in the vicinity of a deer stand within ten days of the start of hunting season,” Sgt. Bass said. That includes deer feed attractants such as “Deer Cane” or “C’Mere Deer.”
Conversation with the sergeant makes it clear that sometimes, the best policy is to admit wrongdoing on the spot and not assume that Sergeant Bass is deaf, dumb and blind, or that he does not know that apples do not grow on pitch pine. Depending on the offense, the field officer’s discretion can be the difference between a written or verbal warning, and court action.
Last fall, one Vineyard archer, charged with hunting on private property without permission and over bait, received fines that totaled $1,200. He lost his license. He also had to forfeit the 12-point buck of a lifetime.
Sergeant Bass said responsible hunters obey the game laws. They also hone their skills so that when the time comes to shoot it is a clean kill.
Sergeant Bass said that in the event a hunter needs to track an animal onto private property, or follow-up on a Sunday, he or she should not hesitate to call. “I will do my best to assist a hunter who wants to recover an animal,” Sgt. Bass said.
Most archery hunters rely on tree stands to gain an advantage over the deer’s superior senses. There is an inherent risk of falling when standing on a small platform affixed to a tree.
Sergeant Bass said it is important to hunt intelligently and safely. He advised hunters planning to be in a tree stand Monday to wear a safety harness at all times and let someone know where they plan to hunt.
Hunters are also advised to check for deer ticks when exiting the woods.
Deer are considered a critical link in the incidence of tick-borne diseases. The deer tick is responsible for infecting humans with Lyme disease, the most publicized of tick-borne illnesses; a malaria-like disease called babesiosis, also known as Nantucket fever; and ehrlichiosis (HGE), a disease related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Last year, the new Journal of Medicine reported on the first confirmed case of deer tick-borne encephalitis (June 4, 2009, “Rare deer tick virus identified as cause of death”) in humans. The story underscored the serious public health risks that deer ticks could pose to people who enjoy the outdoors now and in the future.
A generation ago, the deer tick was uncommon on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The growth of the islands’ deer population and changes in land management, including a resistance to land clearing, have created ideal conditions for deer ticks.