For the first time in more than 100 years, hunters could be allowed to return to the Blue Hills Reservation later this year to hunt white-tailed deer, whose population has exploded well beyond the number state wildlife officials consider to be healthy for the forest.
Officials estimate the population of deer in the Blue Hills to be at least 85 deer per square mile; the optimal number is between six and 18. The dramatic increase has raised worries about Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, vehicles colliding with deer, damaged vegetation, and the spread of invasive species, according to state officials and forest advocates.
The state’s proposed solution is to hold a deer shotgun hunt over four days after Thanksgiving. Under the plan, up to 240 permits would be issued to hunters selected in a random lottery.
“This is a serious public health concern,” said state Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, whose district includes the reservation.
“It’s not healthy for the humans. It’s not healthy for the vegetation. It’s not healthy for the rest of the ecosystem within the Blue Hills and, frankly, it’s not healthy for the deer themselves,” he said.
State officials have scheduled meetings in Canton, Milton, and Quincy to present their plan and solicit feedback. They are also accepting written comments until Oct. 2.
The decision on whether to schedule the hunt rests with state Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Carol I. Sanchez, said Kevin O’Shea, an agency spokesman.
In reaching the hunt proposal, officials considered a range of options, including doing nothing, contraception, sterilization, moving deer to other locations, hiring shooters to kill deer, and trapping and euthanizing the animals, according to a draft plan by state wildlife and conservation officials.
Holding the hunt, O’Shea said, “has come about as the best solution to the problem.”
Friends of the Blue Hills, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the area spanning more than 7,000 acres, has not taken a position on the proposed hunt, but supports efforts to control the deer population, said Judy Lehrer Jacobs, the group’s executive director.
“We have been saying for a number of years now that the deer population is way too high,” Lehrer Jacobs said. “They are really destroying the forest floor and shrubs.”
She said the organization is relying on state experts to come up with a solution.
“It’s not our expertise,” Lehrer Jacobs said. “We trust their judgment. I think their process is a good process.”
Denny Swenson, a Canton resident who serves as president of Friends of the Blue Hills, said she and her husband are among 30 people in their neighborhood to contract Lyme disease in recent years.
To combat the problem, Swenson said, she and some of her neighbors organized a bow-and-arrow hunt on their properties. She said many neighbors plan to attend meetings about the state’s plan for culling the herd, but she will not weigh in on the hunting proposal.
“I’m supportive of the [Department of Conservation and Recreation] taking on the issue,” Swenson said.
Laura Simon, a wildlife ecologist for The Humane Society of the United States, said the state should consider immuno-contraception, a process in which deer are administered contraception via dart gun.
Hunting, she said, does little to curb deer populations because the animals are so adept at reproducing after their numbers have been thinned.
“If you prevent fawns from being born you’re not going to get that bounce back in deer numbers,” Simon said.
She said deer hunting does little to fight Lyme disease. “If people are supporting hunting for that reason, they’re being badly misled,” Simon said.
Dr. Elliot Katz, founder and president emeritus of the nonprofit In Defense of Animals, said the state should look at nonlethal methods for controlling the deer population or hire professionals to do the hunting.
The animals are likely to suffer more if the hunt is open to members of the public, Katz said, “because they’re not marksmen.”
Joyce said he trusts the state wildlife and conservation officials who developed the hunting plan.
“It’s their call and I support it,” he said.