A proposal to allow bow-hunting on town-owned conservation land is stirring debate in Weston, where residents question whether using archers to cull the fast-growing deer population is practical and necessary, or cruel and dangerous.
Officials say deer have badly damaged the town’s conservation land, eating so many saplings that they have begun to change the makeup of the forest. They carry deer ticks, which can cause Lyme disease. And deer that wander into busy roads can cause car accidents.
“Used to be, you’d step back and say, ‘Wow,’” when you saw a deer, said Richard Murray, Weston’s animal control officer. “You just see deer everywhere now.”
If the Board of Selectmen votes to allow the plan, which is being proposed by the town’s Conservation Commission, Weston will join a growing number of suburban communities looking to hunters to help limit the expanding population of deer in Eastern Massachusetts.
In 2010, Dover opened town lands once closed to hunting to a group of archers to help reduce the deer population. Medfield held its first bow-hunting season last fall. Andover, Duxbury, Framingham, and Sudbury have also held deer hunts.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there are between 85,000 and 95,000 deer in the state. Their populations flourish in suburban areas east of Interstate 495, with carefully tended landscapes and few hunters to contend with.
“It’s become pretty clear that deer are problematic,” said Michele Grzenda, Weston’s conservation administrator. A healthy deer population in a town like Weston, she said, would be about six to eight deer per square mile. Weston, she said, has 25.
But the bow-hunting proposal has met with resistance from some residents, who say it would be inhumane and would put Weston’s human residents in danger of errant arrows.
“I’m opposed on very, very many levels,” said Alicia Primer, who is organizing other residents to rally against the proposal. “The reasons that are often cited – that [deer eat] people’s shrubbery – that’s so superficial and a silly reason to kill an animal.”
Primer lives near conservation land and said she would worry about the safety of her children if bow hunters roam the woods near their home.
“My family and my dog walk on town land all the time, and I’m not interested in meeting a bow hunter,” she said.
The Conservation Commission did consider alternatives to hunting, including the possibility of capturing deer and injecting them with contraceptives, Grzenda said.
But the contraceptives that are available, according to state officials, are not 100 percent effective and must be administered every couple of years.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a lot of money involved,” said David Stainbrook, deer and moose project leader for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “It’s unrealistic for a town to come up with the funds to do it.”
Though some residents have expressed concern over safety, state wildlife officials say that Massachusetts has never had an incident in which a hunter shot a nonhunter with a bow and arrow. Archers tend to shoot from trees, giving the arrow a downward trajectory.
Still, the question of whether the practice is humane lingers.
“There is always going to be a case where an animal is shot and for whatever reason it is able to travel a great distance before it dies,” said Murray. “Then there are animals that drop in their tracks.”
The bottom line, said town officials, is that there are just too many deer.
Currently, hunting is allowed in Weston only on private property and with the permission of the landowner. If the selectmen approve the proposal, archers would be allowed to stake out portions of the town’s 2,000 acres of conservation land.
State laws prohibit discharging a firearm or arrow within 500 feet of a building and within 150 feet of a paved road.
Selectmen are scheduled to hear a presentation about the proposal from the Conservation Commission on June 11.