Dover officials are upping the ante on deer this hunting season, recruiting private land owners to allow experienced bowhunters on their property as part of a program taking aim at the herds carrying ticks that can spread Lyme disease.
Along with Sudbury, Medfield, and Weston, Dover has allowed licensed, well-vetted bowhunters to go after deer on public land in recent years; this year’s state bowhunting season starts Monday and runs through Nov. 30.
But people who are overseeing the hunt in Dover see the deer problem as a regional one, and not all nearby communities participate in control efforts.
“We are still trying to get other towns involved,” said Barbara Roth-Schechter, who heads the Dover Board of Health’s Lyme Disease Committee.
Dover officials are expanding their effort and actively recruiting private land owners for the program, which will have 62 hunters involved, all of whom have 15 to 20 years of experience, according to George Giunta, a deer management agent for the town committee, who said there is also a significant waiting list of qualified hunters.
Roth-Schechter said the committee’s members started discussing how to bring private properties into the deer management effort at a forum in April, and the panel advertised in the local newspaper and posted a notice on the town’s website as part of the recruitment drive.
The effort paid off, she said, with 13 parcels of private land added to the program. She said there are now approximately 800 acres of private and publicly owned land in town open to bowhunters this season.
The state reported eight confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Dover last year. There were 3,342 confirmed cases and 1,708 probable cases statewide, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year.
Members of the Lyme Disease Committee say that virtually everyone in town knows someone who has had the disease, and most of the members have had the infection at least once. So, Roth-Schechter said, they are approaching the problem aggressively and on a number of fronts.
The hunt is also an effort to protect the environment, Roth-Schechter noted.
“There is a real risk of having a rising deer population. It’s not good for the forest, or for the deer,” she said. “There is significant ecological damage being done. It’s no longer just about Lyme.”
With the deer population in suburban areas increasing, the animals are creeping closer and closer to homes looking for food, she said.
According to figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Public Health, incidents of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are on the increase in the Northeast.
Needham, which had 17 confirmed Lyme disease cases last year, is among Dover’s neighboring communities without a deer-management program, and with no plans to allow hunting on town-owned or private land, according to town officials.
“That’s based on a careful analysis by our health department,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick. Needham is much more built up and very different from Dover, she said.
“The only way we would consider implementing a bowhunting program would be if there was a serious health risk,” she said.
In Westwood, the town’s health director, Linda Shea, said her community has had discussions about allowing hunting, but has declined to approve it. The state reported 19 Lyme disease cases in Westwood last year.
“This whole area has a problem with Lyme. We are at the epicenter of Lyme disease in Massachusetts,” she said. “But we’d like to see a little evidence that culling the herds is impacting the number of cases. And just because someone is diagnosed with Lyme doesn’t mean they got it here.”
In Sudbury, however, where bowhunting on public land is in its 14th year, conservation agent Debbie Dineen said the town does not keep Lyme disease statistics, but figures from the state show that while it has risen in other communities, it has remained even in Sudbury, where 15 cases were reported last year.
“We don’t know exactly what that means, and whether it is because of our program, but our rate has not gone up,” she said.
Dover officials have held educational forums about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases and their prevention, and provided information about integrated tick management, including landscaping techniques and pesticides. Roth-Schechter credits the educational campaign with helping pave the way for the bowhunting program, which encountered very little resistance when it began three years ago.
The response was quite different in Weston, for example, where there was loud opposition to deer hunting last year before Town Meeting overwhelmingly voted against a proposal to ban the practice.
Roth-Schechter said her committee has received just one letter opposing the program since it started.
Figures from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which tracks deer populations throughout the state, estimates there are more than 30 deer per square mile of forest in Dover and the surrounding area.
That is significantly more than what state officials would like to see, according to Amy Mahler, a spokeswoman for the agency, who wrote in an e-mail that while less than 20 would be preferable, six to eight deer per square mile of forest is the goal.
Last year’s hunting season in Dover resulted in 29 deer — 18 females and 11 males — being culled from the local population, but figures reflecting whether the program is reducing the herd or preventing Lyme disease won’t be available for several years, officials said.
Giunta estimates 50 or 60 deer need to be eliminated each year to have a significant impact.
Giunta and fellow deer management agent Jim Palmer have more than 80 years of combined hunting experience. They say that eventually the deer will learn to avoid danger and stay away from areas that have been repeatedly hunted.
“They’re going to go where they’re safe, and if they smell or see a hunter — and if that happens more than once — they’re gone,” Giunta said.