FOXBOROUGH – It’s deer hunting season in Massachusetts – and there’s plenty of picking. Mass Wildlife estimates the deer population to be over 95,000 – about where it has been for the past two years.
But, in the 1990s, the population was about half that.
Deer thrive for one simple reason: there’s no stopping them. Traditional predators, such as bobcats and wolves, have largely disappeared. And even if coyote populations increase, that doesn’t really help either.
“Coyotes can prey on young deer, but not at a high enough rate to actually control deer populations,” said Lincoln Larson, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Conservation, Recreation and Tourism Management. at North Carolina State University. “We have reached a point in the United States where the only mechanism we have to control overabundant deer populations is deer hunting.”
But therein lies a problem.
“We have far fewer hunters than we have had at any time in the last forty years,” Larson said.
“Previously, about eight percent of the American population was hunted; now it’s down to about four percent and it’s been steadily declining. »
The hunt lost its appeal for two reasons, Larson said. First, fewer Americans live in rural areas, where hunting is more common. Secondly, hunting suffers from an image problem whereas, in the case of deer, it is an important ecological contribution.
“If you look at the hunter population, it’s 90 percent male and 97 percent white,” Larson said. “Which does not reflect the current population of the United States let alone future projections. This is why changing the face of hunting – creating a more inclusive hunting culture for women, racial and ethnic minorities, urban residents and groups that have not historically hunted at the same rate as hunting populations more traditional. I think that’s a critical part of the solution here.
Finding a solution is crucial because deer aren’t going anywhere – and in doing so, are going where they shouldn’t be.
“With all the buildings going on, they’re in people’s backyards more than ever,” said Bryan Souza, a hunter from West Bridgewater. “It increases a lot.”
And while it can be a pain to have deer eating shrubs, vegetables, and other plants, it’s downright scary – and sometimes deadly – to encounter a deer while driving. And it happens more and more.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded approximately one thousand animal-vehicle collisions that were reported in the United States during the 1980s. Reported collisions have nearly doubled since then.
Larson said the decline in hunter numbers is creating a vicious circle when it comes to conservation funding in the United States. Conservation efforts are often funded by hunter license fees and the sale of hunting gear, he said. If you can’t fund conservation, you can’t maintain deer habitats – forcing them to roam backyards and roadsides.
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