Four hundred years ago, at the harvest celebration that would become known as the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag “went out and killed five deer,” according to a letter written by a colonist named Edward Winslow.
It was the bounty of an unspoiled wilderness, to be sure, but it turns out that particular species — the white-tailed deer — would thrive in the developed world to come, a big game animal extraordinarily adapted to graze the suburbs.
It may seem surprising, but there are substantially more deer in Eastern Massachusetts today than when the Wampanoag ventured out in 1621. Which is why MassWildlife, the state agency, would love it if people could go on out and get some venison for their Thanksgiving table as well, especially if you live inside Interstate 495.
Centuries after their two main predators — wolves and mountain lions — were intentionally eradicated from the area, the deer population in Eastern Massachusetts has reached a concerning density, according to MassWildlife, despite record hunting harvests in recent years.
“Forest regeneration stops when you have more than 18 deer per square mile,” said Martin Feehan, the deer biologist for the state. In Eastern Massachusetts, deer densities range from 25 to 50 per square mile, based on data from areas open to hunting. It is assumed to be higher still in areas closed to hunting, which is nearly everywhere in Greater Boston, which is the problem, according to MassWildlife, which is campaigning to increase the number of hunters, the number of female deer they can take, and, in particular, their access to land to hunt.
There is urgency to the MassWildlife plea: The over-browsing of saplings and seedlings is damaging the ground habitat used by many animals and threatening chunks of forest with total collapse when the mature tree canopy dies and there’s nothing to take its place.
But there is also a cautiousness to the campaign, for any increase in access faces strong cultural headwinds in a state where less than 1 percent of adults purchase a hunting license and people understandably thrill to the sight of deer.
“It’s a social issue as much as an animal issue,” Feehan said. “In metro Boston, you don’t have a lot of people who grew up with hunting, so you have less land access and fewer hunters to hunt even the sections that are open.”
Since 2015, the statewide deer harvest has increased sharply, to a record high of 14,757 last year, with more deer killed east of 495 than the central and western parts of the state combined. But while the deer populations in those parts of the state are holding steady in the desired density of 12 to 18 deer per square mile, their ranks in the east continue to rise, and hunting on a much wider scale is the stated management goal.
Deer may bed down in forest cover, but to eat they prefer “edge” habitat, where sunlight can get in and small plants are able to grow, which helps keep their numbers in check in the thick forests and closed canopies of Western Massachusetts.
The suburbs, on the other hand, offer an ideal habitat. Athletic fields. Golf courses. Backyards. Flower beds. Gardens. You’d be hard-pressed to design a better oasis, specialists say, and surveys show suburban deer live longer, with better fawn survival rates, than their wilderness counterparts.
Deer also use buildings for protection, from the cold of winter — it’s not uncommon to find them bundled next to houses, or even in a garage ― or from their only two real predators: coyotes and hunters.
When the Pilgrims landed, wolves and mountain lions were a significant source of deer predation in Massachusetts, but both were wiped from the area centuries ago because of their threat to people and livestock. Deer would also become locally extinct through overhunting, but a federal ban on the sale of wild venison, coupled with local efforts to reintroduce deer, meant that by the 1940s, the state once again had a healthy deer herd, just in time for the national hunting boom spurred by soldiers returning from World War II.
But as the WWII generation aged, hunting went into a steep decline. Today the white-tailed deer population is 100 times what it was when the Lacey Act passed, with an estimated 30 million nationwide.
And while the arrival of coyotes in the state, beginning in the 1950s, reintroduced a predator, they have never made much of a dent, even today where their abundance is creating a separate environmental problem in Massachusetts.
“Coyotes aren’t really taking down adult deer,” said Dave Wattles, MassWildlife’s coyote expert. “They might take newborn fawns, but studies show that even if you remove coyotes and other predators, that same number of fawns are going to die anyway from some other cause, so they don’t end up having much of an impact on the population.”
Plus, it’s much easier for coyotes to be fed by humans, courtesy of our trash and compost and bird feeders, not to mention people who intentionally leave food out for them, Wattles said.
That leaves humans as deer’s chief predators, but hunting is so restricted in Eastern Massachusetts that car collisions rank as the leading cause of deer death, according to MassWildlife.
They’d like to change that, but the obstacles to increasing hunting access are tall.
Massachusetts has among the strictest “setback” laws in the country, which prohibit discharging a weapon within 150 feet of a road and 500 feet of an occupied dwelling, unless you have permission from all the houses within 500 feet. This puts much of the map off limits.
The little public land that is open for hunting is often crowded with other hunters, along with dog walkers, mountain bikers, and bird watchers. Conflicts are inevitable.
“Too many people think we’re out there just yahooing around, shooting everything up and leaving them for dead,” said Mike Albanese, who has been hunting for 45 years, teaches hunter education for the state, and is the house manager at the Concord Rod & Gun Club. “They don’t understand that this is about harvesting your own food, about the cleanest, healthiest meat you can find, and about conservation. They think we just like killing things.”
There are of course large swaths of private land that would be great for hunting, but getting permission from owners is a huge challenge in a region where most people did not grow up around hunting and have genuine safety concerns, not to mention a soft spot for the inarguably majestic creatures that eat their flowers and tomatoes. On top of this, many municipalities have blanket bans on hunting, discharging firearms, even bows and arrows.
If you do find a place to legally hunt, the challenges are just beginning. October and nearly all of November — the best stretch for hunting because deer are breeding and more active during the day — are limited to archery, which is far more difficult. The state also bans the use of crossbows unless the hunter has a doctor’s note stating they are unable to pull back a bow.
And the big one, which for many hunters halves the number of days they can take to the woods, is the prohibition of hunting on Sundays, a holdover from the Puritan “blue laws.”
MassWildlife has publicly backed hunting on Sundays, the use of crossbows, and reducing the buffer zone around homes to be in line with neighboring states, at least during archery season. But all three would require legislative approval and have gone nowhere.
In the 400 years since Colonial settlement, the woods have evolved from a food source to a recreation source, and pleasing the safety and social concerns of the various stakeholders is a glacial process.
“Urban hunting programs are incredibly safe with almost an immaculate record, yet much of my time is spent dealing with social conflict from nonhunters who are concerned about animal rights and have an incorrect view of safety,” said Feehan, who is not a hunter himself. “Hunting is incredibly important for ecosystem conservation. If you care about the environment, you need to have an open mind to it.”