A first for state's deer, moose program
Sonja Christensen, the first woman to head the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's deer and moose program, brings to the job a love of the outdoors instilled growing up in rural northern Minnesota and a sense of ethics honed in conversations with her grandfather, an avid hunter.
Last week, Ms. Christensen came to Martha's Vineyard to visit local deer checking stations at Larry's Tackle in Edgartown and the Wampanoag Tribal headquarters in Aquinnah and speak with some of the folks who provide the state with frontline harvest statistics and information. She told The Martha's Vineyard Times that the information hunters provide is vitally important to the management of deer and the decision-making process across the state.
Ms. Christensen, 26, graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a master's degree in wildlife science and joined the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in April of this year.
Photo by Nelson Sigelman
How does a young woman who grew up in Minnesota end up being so interested in whitetail deer that it becomes a career? "I grew up in a fairly wooded rural setting and saw deer on a regular basis and there is also quite a hunting culture there," Ms. Christensen said. "My grandfather hunted and many of my friends hunted."
Ms. Christensen said that the cultural and management importance of hunting was something she came to understand in conversations with her grandfather. "We had many discussions when I was younger about why exactly he needed to kill these deer, so we talked it through a lot and it started to make sense," she said. Her love of the outdoors coupled with an interest in deer led Ms. Christensen to major in biology at Minnesota State and an internship with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Working out of an office in Westboro, Ms. Christensen's job responsibilities encompass the management and maintenance of the whitetail deer herd as a free-ranging wildlife species as well as the monitoring of the state's small moose population. She said the moose population is fairly stable at this point. The number is estimated to be about 850 to 950 animals in the state.
Whitetail deer continue to thrive in Massachusetts. In most parts of the state the deer are healthy and at management population target numbers. In some eastern sections of the state, their burgeoning population is a problem.
In terms of the Vineyard, Ms. Christensen said the deer density exceeds the target goal of 50 deer per square mile. "We are actively working right now to reduce those deer populations to a number closer to our goal," she said. "Although there may be habitat on the Vineyard, we do have a lower social tolerance due to a higher incidence of Lyme disease and other factors including property damage and vehicle collisions."
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Research shows that a higher number of deer results in higher numbers of ticks and a greater risk of tick-borne diseases, according to Ms. Christensen. Hunting remains the most efficient method of reducing deer numbers, she said.
"Part of my job is also to review and analyze other management options," Ms. Christensen said. "And although there are many options out there the most effective and efficient for the state is hunting," she said, with the added benefit that the natural resource is utilized. "Options such as immunocontraception or a hands-off approach just are really not practical given the state of human involvement and human contact with wildlife."
The most enjoyable part of her new job is being outdoors, seeing deer and working with hunters and the public towards a common goal of a healthy deer population, said Ms. Christensen. "Its nice to see healthy animals on the landscape and know that we are doing our job correctly."
Ms. Christensen is also a hunter. She said the camaraderie and the sense of land stewardship is all part the experience. She also finds a personal reward that has much to do with the love of the outdoors she developed growing up. "It is nice to be in the woods even if you do not shoot a deer and are not successful," she said. "You still see a lot of other wildlife and it forces you to sit still and listen and observe the environment around you. And that's an important thing to do, just kind of stop and be outside."