Though Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state in the country, it is a state where deer can be found anywhere. MassWildlife biologists estimate that there are over 100,000 deer statewide. Estimated densities range from about 12-18 per square mile in western and central Massachusetts, to over 50 deer per square mile on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, and certain areas of eastern Massachusetts where hunting access is restricted.Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Deer and Moose Project Leader David Stainbrook presented his annual Deer Review to the DFW board on May 15. The following information was obtained from the minutes of that public board meeting.

He briefly explained how MassWildlife manages deer in the state, and recommended a management range adjustment in the eastern zones, to 12-18 deer per square mile of forest. He explained that the board-approved density ranges are meant to be benchmarks to meet the agency's goal of keeping deer numbers below the point of major impacts to forest, including on the diversity of plant species and the forest's ability to regenerate, but in balance with public desire and tolerance for deer.

Noting that the board had approved an expanded range for zones 1-9 in 2015, he stated that the range for zones 10-14 has not been changed since it was set in 1985, when there were fewer than five deer per square mile in most of eastern Massachusetts. His staff believes that the benchmark of 6-8 deer per square mile for zones 10-14 needs to be updated and aligned with the rest of the state.

Stainbrook reported that the change would not affect the way they manage deer, because the goal is still the same; the change would instead provide a more realistic benchmark to attain. He explained that the way MassWildlife manages the deer population across the state is through regulated female harvest, and that this is accomplished by allocating antlerless deer permits zone by zone in response to population trends. The number of permits allocated per zone depends on the targeted direction they want deer density to go — increase, stabilize, or decrease — and the previous year's harvest data and success rates. He then presented the data on the 2018 deer harvest and current trends (see chart)

Stainbrook reported that some of the reasons for such a high harvest may include increasing numbers of deer in the west and central regions from a period of low permit issuance; increasing numbers in the east from lack of hunting access; good weather for hunting and the presence of tracking snow, which led to high shotgun season harvests; and low food availability.

Using graphs to show the trends in numbers of deer harvested, he stated that it is helpful to break the state into two areas when looking at deer management issues and trends.

In general, in Zones 1-9, deer numbers have been kept relatively stable over the past 30 years through careful antlerless deer permit allocations and regulated hunting. Staff has kept antlerless deer permit allocations low over the past 10 years in many of these zones, to allow conservative population growth. Analyzing deer density in the context of the state's management ranges, Stainbrook reported that they have kept antlerless deer permits low for the past 5-10 years in Zones 1-4 (our area) to allow some population growth. Acknowledging that there are highs and lows in areas of any zone, they are seeing increasing deer numbers that are approaching the upper end of the current management range. They are also documenting some forest impacts on their Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and other lands that are open to hunting, such as state forests. In response, the staff recommended a conservative increase in the allocations to stabilize deer numbers.

In Zones 5-8, Stainbrook reported that the deer numbers appear to be within their management range to near the upper end in some areas and appear increasing to stable. They are also seeing forest impacts in these zones on their WMAs and other lands that are open to hunting. They recommended a conservative increase in the allocations in Zones 5, 7, and 8, with no change to allocation in Zone 6.

There is some variability in Zone 9 relative to development, with lower numbers along the border with Zones 5 and 8, and higher numbers along the eastern edge, along I-495. In general, it is at the upper end of the state management range and increasing. Also, they are documenting forest impacts in most of the huntable areas. They therefore recommended an increase in the allocation to stabilize deer numbers and allow for additional permits relative to the Wachusett area hunt.

Stainbrook observed that, on average, the deer population is within the management range in Zones 1-9, but there is always variability within each zone, with some areas having lower deer numbers and some with higher deer numbers. The variability typically comes down to hunting access, hunter effort, and habitat quality.

Turning to the Eastern zones, 10-14, deer numbers have gone from very low to quite abundant, and much of this is related to the lack of hunting access and the discharge setbacks that create a lot of sanctuary areas, which limits harvest. In areas where there has been adequate hunting access, he reported that they have likely kept deer numbers stable to slowly growing, but in areas with limited to no hunting access, deer numbers have been steadily growing. While there is enough hunting access in the west and central zones to afford great management ability, the eastern zones show a quite different story.

Deer numbers can be close to goal levels in areas with adequate hunting access and very high in areas with a lack of hunting access and major restrictions to hunting. Overall, average densities are higher than their management range for all of the eastern zones and they are seeing increasing trends in many areas.

He pointed out that though they typically increase the permit allocations to reduce population, in Zones 10, 13, and 14, antlerless permits are essentially unlimited, given how long it takes the surplus permits to sell out in recent years (almost two weeks in 2018 in Zone 10; never in Zones 13 and 14), so an increase in the allocation will not lead to more deer harvested, just more unfilled permits per hunter. However, he stated that that is not completely the case for Zone 11, which sold out within a few days. Thus, they recommend increasing the allocation of antlerless permits in Zone 11 to help increase antlerless deer harvest.

Stainbrook then provided recommendations, based on this year's review. He proposed to update the management range in Zones 10-14 from 6-8 to 12-18 deer per square mile of forest, producing one statewide management range and one goal. He also provided the proposed 2019 Antlerless Deer Permit allocations, by Wildlife Management Zone. For context, he also provided the 2018 allocation numbers, indicated the size of the proposed changes, and the desired outcomes (see chart). Both proposals were approved by the board.

In a further discussion, Stainbrook was asked whether it would be advantageous to have smaller set-backs for archery hunting, so that the deer population could be managed more effectively in more areas, and he agreed that it would.

Incidentally, if you want an antlerless permit, the application deadline is July 16.

Gene Chague can be reached or 413-637-1818