ETHAN TAPPER | CHITTENDEN COUNTY FORESTER | OCTOBER 1, 2019
I think that anyone who has lived in Hinesburg or Chittenden County for more than a couple of years can agree that things are changing. This is probably most apparent in the form of residential and commercial development changing the makeup of our rural communities, but it also can be said for the ecology of our communities, and how this influences our culture. These ecological and cultural changes have similarly affected the Hinesburg Town Forest. From the 1920s through the late 1970s the 864-acre town forest was essentially inaccessible, a giant chunk of forestland that lent itself primarily to hunting and off-trail exploring. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, it has become more accessible, been tended through well-managed forestry and has seen substantial recreational resources developed.
At the same time that the Hinesburg Town Forest was starting to develop its forest management and recreational infrastructure, massive changes were occurring in our deer herd and the way it was managed. Vermont’s deer population, after recovering from being virtually exterminated from the state in the 1800s (17 deer were reintroduced near Rutland in 1878), exploded in the 1940s-1970s. This recovery and subsequent population boom can largely be attributed to the regeneration of Vermont’s forested habitat, which rebounded after Vermont was about 80% cleared for pasture in the 1800s, and the extirpation of deer’s historic predators: wolves and catamounts.
In the late 1970s, the deer herd in Vermont was so overpopulated that deer were measurably smaller, less healthy and had reduced reproductive success. This prompted massive die-offs in a couple of harsh winters at the end of that decade, which led to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife beginning to allow the hunting of antlerless deer with a rifle, to lower the herd to a sustainable level. This began a contentious and controversial decade between hunters and state wildlife managers which led to the end of antlerless deer hunting with a rifle in Vermont in 1990.
Since 1990, the deer herd has been increasing in Vermont, largely due to decreasing hunter numbers (Vermont’s licensed hunter numbers have decreased by about 2/3 since the 1970s, and 53% since 1985), increases in posted land, and increasing development and forest fragmentation. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s 2018 antlerless recommendation states that deer are above carrying capacity statewide, meaning that there are too many deer for the amount of habitat we have. At the same time, hunting at the HTF has declined, subject to these same trends in hunting but also, anecdotally, to the increasing use of the HTF for recreation, making the property less desirable to hunt in.
So, what’s the problem with having a lot of deer? Other than the threat to the herd itself, as we experienced in the late 1970s, the main issue is that in winter a deer eats, or browses, 6-8% of its body weight, about 10-15 pounds, of buds and twigs per day. Where the deer population is dense, browsing has a massive influence on the composition of the forest, as they devastate the species they like to eat (like sugar maple, red oak, yellow birch and white ash) and ignore those they don’t (like beech and invasive plants). This promotes a less diverse, less resilient forest with less high-quality wildlife habitat, including for deer themselves. This browse damage is prevalent at the HTF and at the LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest, Hinesburg’s other town forest, and has led to observable changes in the composition of these forests.
To make a bad pun, we want to nip this deer problem in the bud. If you venture just slightly to our south, in some areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, deer populations can range from 80-200/square mile (ours is probably closer to 25/square mile, although just downstream from the LHTF, the Nature Conservancy has measured it at 32 deer/square mile). Areas with the highest populations — suburban environments — have seen decreases in forest health, diversity and productivity (this is called forest disintegration) and increases in ticks, tick-borne diseases and invasive plants. Additional costs of deer overabundance in these areas take the form of damage to agriculture, home gardens and incredibly high deer/car collision rates. As a result, aggressive and costly strategies are sometimes needed to cull the herd in these areas, from hiring professional hunters to sterilizing deer.
With the deer populations we have today in Vermont, it is still possible to lower the herd to a sustainable level, using hunting, before we get to this point. One of the ways we can do this is by advocating for hunting at the HTF and LHTF, and trying to make these town forests more attractive places for hunters to hunt. We’ve contacted experts in Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Department and others to find the periods of time that would be least cumbersome on recreational trail users and most effective for hunters.
As a result, we’re instituting a closure of the Hinesburg Town Forest and LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest’s recreational trail systems on the following dates in 2019 to allow for the properties solely to be hunted: Oct. 2-11, Oct. 23-Nov. 1, Nov. 16-22 and Dec. 7-15.
These dates capture the opening and closing weekend of archery season, opening week of rifle season, and muzzleloader season. The opening days of each hunting season are the times when hunters are most successful, and archery and muzzleloader seasons are important in that these are the times when antlerless deer can be harvested, which is the best way to lower the populations of deer. The HTF and LHTF will remain open to hunting throughout Vermont’s deer seasons, but on these dates, trails will be closed to recreation to diminish disturbance to deer and promote a more successful experience for hunters. Trails will be open to recreation on all other days, although it is strongly recommended that everyone wear blaze orange clothing and stay out of the woods as much as possible for the duration of rifle season (Nov. 16 through Dec. 1).
We want to recruit hunters to Hinesburg’s Town Forests so that we can manage our deer herd, and our ecological resources, responsibly. We also want to hear about your hunting experiences at both town forests, and if you take any deer. Please reach out to the HTF Committee by attending a meeting (the second Thursday of each month at the Hinesburg Town Hall) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County forester. He can be reached at email@example.com, 802-585-9099 or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.