Can you imagine if deer hunting were allowed in the Blue Hills?
It’s not that far-fetched an idea.
Hunting is strictly prohibited in the state’s Blue Hills Reservation, as it has been for decades, but it is an option that is being seriously explored, as officials try to figure out how to reduce the ever-growing population of deer living — thriving — in the expansive wooded property.
“It’s without question: There are way too many deer,” said Judy Lehrer Jacobs, executive director of the Friends of the Blue Hills, a Milton-based nonprofit devoted to preserving and protecting the state-owned parkland that covers more than 7,000 acres in Braintree, Canton, Dedham, Milton, Quincy, and Randolph.
The reservation is a widely used recreational area surrounded by well-populated suburbs and popular for bird-watching, hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. But the number of white-tailed deer has grown so much that officials say something needs to be done.
State Senator Brian A. Joyce, whose district includes the Blue Hills, said 6 to 8 deer per square mile is considered to be a healthy population for this region, but a recent survey conducted for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation found that there are as many as 85 deer per square mile in the reservation.
“There is an extraordinary and unsafe number of deer living in the Blue Hills Reservation,” said Joyce, a Milton Democrat. He said they pose “serious public health concerns” because as their population has increased, so has the prevalence of ticks, which can carry Lyme disease, babesiosis, and other illnesses.
Because deer feed on vegetation close to the forest floor, they have also made a significant impact on the understory of the forest, and their grazing is causing environmental and ecological damage to the reservation, he said.
Joyce added a provision to last year’s Environmental Bond Bill calling for the state to develop and implement a plan to control deer populations in areas where their density exceeds 50 per square mile. He pointed to the deer-hunting program developed for the Quabbin Reservoir as an example of what can be done. Controlled hunts have been held on Quabbin watershed lands since 1991, and they have helped vegetation and improved water quality, he said.
Joyce said the Department of Conservation and Recreation will work with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and solicit public input on what measures should be taken. “I expect there will be a program in place over the next year. My sense is that they’re looking at different options,” he said, and “the safest, most humane approach” will be chosen.
According to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there are 85,000 to 95,000 deer statewide, but densities vary widely. Deer populations on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have reached approximately 50 per square mile — and that is high, according to Marion Larson, chief of information and education for the division.
Female deer can give birth to two or three fawns every year, according to Larson. Hunting remains the most practical way to manage the population, and the notion of a “controlled hunt” could take several different forms, she said. It may be limited to bow and arrow hunting only, or the hunt could take place on a particular day.
For the most recent deer-hunting at the Quabbin, hunters were chosen by lottery and the hunt was held in specific areas of the property on specific dates.
Bill Hickey, a spokesman for DCR, said the state will carefully consider opening any additional areas to hunting. “This is very preliminary, and we are considering this on a case-by-case basis,” he said in an e-mail.
“In Willowdale State Forest [in Ipswich] and Wompatuck State Park [in Hingham], elected officials have asked our agency to consider a controlled hunt, but no decisions have been made. Any decision to open additional areas would be done in consultation with our partners at [the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife] and the local communities.”
The Friends of the Blue Hills said that the group is waiting for the state’s recommendations, and that it has not taken a position on the issue.
But many agree on one thing: Something needs to be done.
Laura Beebe, a board member of the Friends who lives in Milton, said she is concerned that the booming population of deer will bring more car accidents and Lyme disease. She said she has also seen the impact that deer have had on the area.
“The understory has been really decimated,” she said. “You can see through the trees now.”
Beebe said she is waiting to see what the state recommends, and she would be in favor of a “very controlled” deer hunt if it was limited to bows and arrows.
“I think people might be more open to it,’’ she said, given that such weapons have a smaller range. “Guns make me nervous. I don’t like the thought of [guns] in our Blue Hills. This is a park. It’s very urban. There are people, horses, and dogs. It’d be a real challenge.”