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Deer creating ''silent' crisis for Massachusetts farmers

Courtesy
Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
Courtesy

An advocate for southeastern Massachusetts farmers said there is a natural disaster putting them out of business, but unlike the farms that were devastated by flooding this summer, there is no fundraiser or emergency money from the Legislature to help.

Susan Murray, executive director of the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership, told the Joint Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources that farmers in Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth counties are suffering under "a silent environmental crisis," namely an overpopulation of deer that she said leads to more than $1 million in farm losses each year.

"This is a crippling financial loss in an industry with tight margins and on the front line of climate change. Farms are an oasis for deer when surrounding forests are depleted due to overpopulation and drought. Deer eat just about every crop we plant, including vegetables, berries, grapes, cranberries, tree fruit, flowers, and nursery crops," Murray said.

"Deer also poop everywhere, creating more losses as food safety regulations prohibit harvesting crops near feces. They trampled cranberry vines and bogs, and in hay fields and pastures they eat the most nutrient-dense plants leaving livestock farmers with sub-optimal feed for their animals. But it isn't just the direct costs. It's also the amount of time and money farmers spend on monitoring fields and the labor of installing and maintaining fences and other deterrents," she added.

Murray testified in support of two bills Wednesday. One to create an eight-person Deer Population Control Commission that would be charged with recommending "best practices for controlling the Commonwealth’s deer population and methods for assisting farmers in preventing and combating property damage caused by deer," and another to repeal the state's longstanding prohibition of hunting on Sundays.

She said that "hunting is one of the most effective and efficient means for managing deer population," but it isn't working in southeastern Mass. Many farmers either do not own the land they farm, do not hunt, or do not qualify to take "nuisance animals." The only type of permanent deer fence that will successfully exclude deer costs $10,000 per acre and while electric fences are cheaper, "they never work 100 percent and the deer eventually always get in," Murray said.

"What I'm asking from you today is to recognize the natural disaster that's putting our farmers out of business. There are no fundraisers, there's no emergency money from the Legislature to help our farmers. This is a silent environmental crisis and our farmers are suffering," she said. "What do you say to a farmer who has a great production system in place, done everything to be successful, and they watch their crops being decimated by deer, a resource the state of Massachusetts owns and manages? This problem transcends any one agency. We need a multidisciplinary approach to determine how best to reduce deer populations, especially in areas with more people where it's impossible to manage the deer herd solely through hunting."

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said deer densities vary widely from an ideal range of about 12–18 deer per square mile in most of central and western Massachusetts to more than 30–50 deer per square mile in areas of eastern Massachusetts and on the islands, where hunting access is restricted.

"Historically in Massachusetts, deer populations were controlled by three main predators: mountain lions, wolves, and humans. Now that mountain lions and wolves are absent in the Commonwealth, deer populations are able to grow in numbers in areas without regulated hunting, despite vehicle collisions and predation by black bears, bobcats, and coyotes," MassWildlife says on its website. "When deer numbers exceed human tolerance, they are often viewed as pests and can cause public safety issues and property damage. Additionally, when deer numbers exceed what the habitat can support, forest health can be severely degraded and negatively impact other animals and plants."

In 2015, Massachusetts opened the first legal hunt in the Blue Hills Reservation in about a century with state environmental officials pointing to data that the deer population density in that area had gotten out of control.

"There are significant ecological issues that are going on in the Blue Hills because the deer are going and foraging all of the vegetation and you don't have the natural growth cycle occurring in the forest," then-Energy and Environment Secretary Matt Beaton said in 2015. "So they actually, at some point if left unchecked, would starve themselves out of the area and that would actually be a much crueler way for the deer to survive or unfortunately not survive."

Since 2020 and including this year, the Department of Conservation and Recreation allowed archery hunting of deer in the Blue Hills by a controlled number of permit-holders.

Some people who testified before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday urged lawmakers to repeal the state's ban on Sunday hunting, which is rooted in the Puritanical blue laws that once governed Massachusetts, as a way to give hunters more opportunities to help control the deer population.

Alex Goodman, from Dartmouth, said the South Coast has "a massive deer population problem" and cited a local study that he said found the density of deer in the area to be roughly 56 deer per square mile.

"This problem is leading to huge problems with over-browsing in our native forests. It's also leading to near-daily vehicle collisions on our roadways. It's also leading to the spread of tick-borne illnesses. The only tool that we have to appropriately manage this deer population is recreational hunting," Goodman said. "And not only does it manage the population, but it uses the resource as a valuable food for hunters and their families, and it also generates money for conservation and wildlife management in the state. It's a huge win-win-win."

The idea of lifting the Sunday hunting ban, which only Massachusetts and Maine still have on their books, has been debated on Beacon Hill for more than 35 years but has not been changed. Opposition to the lifting the ban greatly outweighed support at Wednesday's hearing with several people mentioning incidents in which hunters mistook people or pets for deer.

"Ninety-nine percent of Massachusetts residents do not hunt. Only 1 percent do but we, the 99 percent, only receive one day a week" to enjoy the forests without worrying about hunting activity, Antoinette Pizzinato-Hatfield of Topsfield said. She added, "There's plenty of opportunity for hunters to hunt in the six allowed days, but not very much for the non-hunters. We shouldn't be removing the Sunday hunting ban, we should be increasing the number of non-hunting days."

And opponents were similarly not on board with allowing just bow-and-arrow hunting on Sundays, a step that the House considered in 2014.

"As for allowing bow, no thanks," Pizzinato-Hatfield said. "My internal organs wouldn't care whether they're being sliced by an arrow or bullet."

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