So Many White-Tails—Montpelier’s Deer Debate

by Sarah Davin

Photo by John Hall

Oh Deer

Think back when humans started moving into deer habitat,

They probably were saying, “how dare those 2 legged creatures be so brazen!”

They’re cutting down our forest! Etc.,

They’re ruining our food.

Well, as people populate more I guess deer aren’t dumb, when they spot a meal, they want some.

– Mary Messier, Montpelier, Front Porch Forum

In reaction to deer sightings and garden destruction in the area, Montpelier’s Front Porch Forum has been abuzz with all things cervine. Posts include propositions of beginning deer-management blogs, deer-repellent recipes, and deer poetry. Amongst all this, there seem to be two general positions: deer ought to be controlled in some way, and we ought to leave them alone because they are a part of nature.

Is the deer problem as bad as everyone says? Although The Bridge was unable to obtain specific numbers on Montpelier’s deer, according to Nick Fortin, Deer Project Leader for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, the statewide deer population is expected to be about 155,000 before the 2018 deer seasons. This is 10,000 more than last year’s estimate of 145,000. According to Louis Porter, commissioner of the department, there is some reason for concern. “We are increasingly concerned about deer numbers in places where hunting is limited,” he explains. “That includes places with lots of posted land, and places like Montpelier, where hunting is restricted because of concerns about hunting within the city limits.”

Faced with this population increase, there has been quite a bit of discussion about what ought to be done about it. According to Porter, there aren’t many options but to “control” the deer population, and from his perspective, one method is more effective and feasible than the others—hunting. “There are not many, if any, viable alternatives to managing deer populations outside of hunting. Some jurisdictions have tried other alternatives, such as hiring sharp shooters, or even giving deer birth control.” Compared with hunting, these other options are very expensive, he said, and less effective when deer are able to freely move throughout an area.

While hunting in less densely populated areas may be the clearest solution, it could be more difficult or dangerous in and around Montpelier. Although Porter insists that hunting is safe, the sound of rifle discharges may make people feel uneasy. One solution he suggests and hopes Montpelierites will support is bow hunting. “In an urban setting like Montpelier, archery hunting is especially well suited, and I think residents and hunters would do well to encourage it and promote it.”

Some residents are worried that the hunting will go too far. Anne Charles posted her disapproval on Front Porch Forum, writing “My concern is that this conversation is going to lead to a killing spree that goes under the euphemism ‘harvesting’ accompanied by dubious ‘natural’ justifications. I don’t understand why we can’t just leave the deer alone.” Charles is not alone. Michael Badamo wrote passionately in response to a post, saying “I strongly suspect any effort to wipe [the deer] out of our neighborhoods would be met with serious opposition. We have little enough left of the natural world in our day-to-day lives.”

On June 15, the Montpelier Deer Study Group, an informal collection of concerned citizens, met with Mark Scott, Director of Wildlife for Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, and Geoff Beyer, the Montpelier Director of City Parks, to discuss what could be done about the deer. The group members were worried not only for their hostas but for their health, because Lyme disease is spread by deer ticks.

Their concerns are well-placed. On August 6, the Vermont Department of Health announced the first Vermont resident to die of Lyme carditis. Although this resident died of a rare complication, the announcement does demonstrate the seriousness of the disease.

As part of the meeting, the group discussed not only how to manage the deer, which spread the ticks, but also white-footed mice, which are the primary carrier of the Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Owls and foxes, who prey on the mice, find certain types of densely growing, invasive plants impenetrable. One valuable recommendation the study group took away from the meeting was to limit the presence of plants such as barberry and honeysuckle, so that predators can more easily reach their prey.

While it still may be some time before Montpelier’s deer meet biological carrying capacity, meaning when the number of deer outnumber the amount of resources available to sustain them, Porter worries about another type of capacity, which he calls cultural capacity. “Tolerance can vary considerably among residents. A person living and working in downtown Montpelier may have very different views than a homeowner on Towne Hill Road. Regardless, based on what we are hearing and seeing, it seems that the deer population in Montpelier is nearing or exceeding the number that most residents are comfortable with.”

In a way, it’s not so much about asking how many deer Montpelier can support, but the question of how many more deer residents can stand.

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