MILTON — With eyes beaming through the wooded darkness, a deer dashed across Canton Avenue at about 5:30 a.m. Monday. Leaves rustled as the doe pranced across the road and into the bounding knolls of Blue Hills Reservation.
That doe was fair game. The first deer hunt in the 122-year history of the state park was underway, and more than 80 shotgun-wielding woodsmen had converged on Blue Hills from across New England for the chance to bag some venison, while performing a service conservation officials say is necessary to curb an overgrown deer population.
Animal rights activists also came to the reservation, armed not with shotguns, but with bullhorns and with candles they lit Monday afternoon, in solemn protest of the hunt, which they described as a slaughter of innocent creatures.
Despite their pleas, the hunt went off as planned, and by its 5 p.m. conclusion 26 deer were dead. The hunt, which allows most participants to shoot two bucks and two does, will continue Tuesday and then Dec. 7 and Dec. 8. State conservation officials aren’t saying how many deer need to be killed.
Hunters interviewed Monday said they believed they were trimming the numbers of a species that had raised the risk of Lyme disease and denuded the forest of its undergrowth.
“You see these woods? You can see 50 yards in any direction, and that’s a bad thing,” said Aaron Hurst, a hunter from Guilford, Vt., and a forest ranger in that state.
As he spoke, he was loading two slain does into the bed of his Toyota Tacoma pickup. His hands were bloody, as was the orange sled he used to drag the larger, 120-pound deer about a mile from the kill site. Hurst untied the rope that joined the doe’s head to its front legs and explained how a hunter could also be an environmentalist.
“As someone who spends so much time in the forests, I know when a woods has an ecological problem, and this place has an ecological problem,” he said.
Matthew Sisk, deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that a healthy population is between seven and 14 deer per square mile. A 2013 report commissioned by state Senator Brian A. Joyce found the density on the 7,000 acres that comprise Blue Hills Reservation to be 85 deer per square mile.
Protesters questioned the validity of the 2013 study, saying the harsh winter earlier this year could have naturally reduced the deer population, making the hunt unnecessary.
Ingrid Avalos, a rheumatologist in Boston, said the departments of conservation and of fish and game shrugged off the questions of animal rights activists while state officials weighed the question of whether to hold the hunt.
For example, Avalos said, the state agencies did not produce experts who proved that Lyme disease would be eliminated as a result of deer hunting.
“There are a big proportion of these animal activists who are against hunting. But apart from that, there are people also protesting the lack of transparency,” Avalos said of her fellow protesters, many of whom had been demonstrating against the possibility of the hunt before the October decision to hold it.
On Monday afternoon, the group gathered near the Brookwood Community Farm on Blue Hill River Road. There, hunters had to report their kills to officials, so protesters held a candlelight vigil and heckled hunters arriving with their kill.
“No more hunting! In our parks!” the group yelled.
The protesters, who call themselves Friends of Blue Hills Deer, seek nonviolent methods of reducing the deer population or letting nature take care of itself.
Catherine Gore, an animal rights activist from the North Shore, said there was too much violence in the world for the state to encourage killing of any kind.
“Humans brought these invasive species,” Gore said of the vegetation and animals that are also causing problems in the reservation. “And we shouldn’t take it out on the deer because we caused the plants to be there.”
But Sisk, the conservation official, said that the state was unwilling to try other options to reduce the deer population, including animal contraception and a trap and transfer program, because they were too expensive or ineffective.
Permits for the controlled hunt had been awarded in a lottery to licensed hunters. For each two-day session, the state randomly selected 98 hunters, who then had to complete a hunting safety course.
Ken White, a hunter from Berkley, called the hunt a unique opportunity.
“I want to be able to help the cause and hopefully harvest a deer,” White said.
Michael Raczkowski, a hunter from Medford, said he had no goals for the hunt besides doing his part for the state.
“Obviously, if you see a target you’re going to shoot it, but you’re going to make sure it’s a deer,” Raczkowski said.
There were no reported instances of incidental damage during the hunt, although all trails had remained open to the public.
Dane Miller, an animal rights activist from Winthrop, said he happened to be walking on the trails Monday morning. At about 11 a.m., Miller said, he heard gunshots ringing above the blaring music in his headphones.
A hunter appeared, Miller said, and invited him to view, photograph, and take video of his latest kill — unaware Miller was an activist.
Miller said it was the first time he had seen a slain animal, and it was just as traumatic as he imagined it would be.