Harvest Time

The preliminary 2015 Massachusetts deer harvest of 9,910, released late last week by MassWildlife, was mediocre compared to recent harvests but not surprising from a western Massachusetts perspective.

Gone are the days when Franklin County woods most favorable to deer hunting were patrolled annually by eastern Massachusetts visitors hunting where their chance of success was greatest. Who would have ever dreamed that just the opposite would occur a generation or two down the road? Yes, that’s right, western Mass. meat hunters are now traveling to the eastern half of the state to supply venison for their freezers, be it during archery, shotgun, primitive-firearm or all of the above seasons. Why? Very simple. With higher deer densities confined in smaller patches of woods, the EMass success rates are far higher. Not only that, but in some deer-management zones, hunters can obtain multiple antlerless deer permits, and bowhunters have the luxury of setting up on deer that live along the edge of residential neighborhoods and are thus more accustomed to and less wary of human scent.

What it all adds up to is EMass numbers like those released last week. Although preliminary, the 70/30-percent harvest breakdown moving from the eastern to western halves of the state doesn’t figure to change much when state Deer Project Leader David Stainbrook releases his final report in the coming days That’s just the way it is nowadays, and the way it has been for at least 20 years. And don’t expect the current formula to change anytime soon. Not when the deer-management team intentionally manipulates its most effective deer-management tool — antlerless permits — to encourage hunting pressure eastward. That way, they can reduce suburban highway carnage where deer populations are densest while simultaneously building WMass numbers by drawing away hunters. Another factor in favor of reducing EMass deer densities is Lyme Disease, which is carried by deer ticks that can create serious health risks. Yes indeed, people living in suburban deer country have arrived at the point by now where they’ve developed tick and Lyme Disease phobia. Particularly vulnerable are children playing outside, and that doesn’t even address expensive Lyme Disease issues pertaining to dogs and other household pets as well as some livestock, especially horses.

As for the preliminary numbers, the eight Deer Management Zones in the western half of the state (Zones 1 through 7, with Zone 4 split into north and south) produced a total of 2757 kills during the archery (920), shotgun (1,347) and primitive-firearm (490) seasons. That represents a meager 30 percent of the statewide kill. Western hunters produced 22 percent of the archery harvest, compared to 33 percent of the shotgun and 31 percent of the primitive-firearm harvests. The eastern half of the state (Zones 8 through 14) registered 6,950 kills, which represents 70 percent of the statewide tally.

A harvest in the five zones west of the Connecticut River (Zones 1-4N/S) was 1,829, while the three zones bordered by the eastern bank of the river (Zones 5 through 7) produced 1,131 kills.

The state’s top harvests came from Zones 11 (2,141), 10 (1,920), and 9 (883). Combined, those three represent half of the statewide kill. Zone 11 is located in southeastern Massachusetts, mostly Bristol and Plymouth counties, Zone 10 is located in northeastern Massachusetts, all of Essex and some of Middlesex and Norfolk counties, and Zone 9 ventures into Worcester, Middlesex and Norfolk counties. So, in a general sense, the majority of our deer are now being killed in an area bordered on the west by Worcester and Leominster, on the northeast by the North Shore and in the southeast by Fall River and Plymouth … not by any stretch traditional deer country unless you want to go back to colonial times.

Franklin County hunters bemoaned the abundant hard and soft mast that made it nearly impossible to pattern deer last fall. And even when the fellas did “get into deer,” they had to kill them on the spot or expect their prey to vanish into a plethora of adjacent feeding areas where they weren’t pressured. Once those deer found a place to hunker down and feed, they’d stay when hunter pressure didn’t follow. And even when hunters did discover their new hideouts, they’d easily find another out of harm’s way.

In recent years, Stainbrook’s deer-management team has been trying to reduce deer densities in eastern Zones 10 through 14, stabilize them in central Zones 7 through 9, and increase them in Zones 1 through 6. In 2010, when the western Zones 2 through 7 had estimated deer densities of 12 to 15 per square mile, the management team wanted to up levels to 15 to 18. Last year, Stainbrook decided “to make the goals a more realistic 12 to 18 deer per square mile,” with some areas obviously holding more than others.

“It’s tough to gauge deer population in a place like Zone 4 North when I’m getting conflicting calls telling me there are too many deer in one area while people nearby are asking where all their deer went,” Stainbrook said. “We’re working on increasing populations out there but are up against it in old- and medium-growth forest,” where deer populations stay flat at best. Deer numbers grow quicker in areas where responsible logging is regularly occurring, leaving in its wake thick hardwood-regeneration-phase plots rich in winter browse.

“You can’t beat browse like sugar-maple saplings that sprout up after someone’s maple orchard is thinned out,” Stainbrook said. “We encourage landowners to keep their woodlots healthy and vibrant through forest-management plans that promote wildlife and healthy ecosystems.”

Many local hunters groused this past season about winter-kill and coyote predation as two major factors leading to a perceived reduced deer herd from 2014. Well, Stainbrook paid heed and did explore that speculative assessment by encouraging MassWildlife’s Connecticut Valley Wildlife District staff to investigate any reported deer carcasses. The problem is that wildlife biologists found no evidence of high winter mortality by starvation or predation during the difficult winter of 2014-15.

Another factor contributing to local hunters’ lack of success during the most recent deer season can be attributed to an ever-shrinking hunter pool in Franklin County woods that were once inundated with enthusiastic hunters moving deer throughout the day and improving everyone’s chance of seeing and/or killing them. Now, during a warm snowless season like the most recent, an ever-diminishing hunter pool can really be up against it to fill deer tags in habitats chock full of acorns, apples, grapes and you name it.

Potentially, an entirely different, more favorable scenario will unfold for deer hunters next fall. At least that’s what the folks most frustrated this past year are hoping.

Fact is, you never know. That’s a challenge sportsmen welcome, and can come away victorious with due diligence.

– – –

Longtime North Orange reader Micheal Moore (no, not that Michael Moore) chimed in with an interesting local rattlesnake tidbit related to the mention here of a controversial MassWildlife proposal to stock Timber Rattlers on a secluded Quabbin Reservoir island.

Moore recalls “reading in your (news)paper or the Brattleboro Reformer about a forest fire in West Brattleboro in 1958 or 1959, when thousands of Timber Rattlesnakes poured out of the ledges and spooked firemen. At this time, they were pretty sure they’d eradicated them from most of Vermont, so everyone was shocked. The point I took from the incident was that even though the woods were apparently full of them, no one seemed to see them, was bitten by them or had their dogs bitten.

“You suspect firemen from southern Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire must have hunted, fished or hiked those woods, and some of them probably even lived in the woods. Still, never a reported snakebite. I’ve since tried to find the article to no avail. Otherwise I’d forward it, but I’m thinking you’re likely handier than me at news research, so it might be something you could come up with.”

So far, after cursory Internet searches using various keyword combinations, no further information on the reported Brattleboro wildfire snakes. If anyone has recollection or documentation, please do respond to the email address listed below.

Meanwhile, in conversation with Recorder administrative assistant Diane Poirier Tuesday afternoon about the possibility of uncovering an old Recorder clipping about the snake-infested Brattleboro inferno, she immediately recognized the eerie tale learned as a child from her mother, a Gill native.

“Oh yeah, I remember that story,” she said with a little shiver. “It used to give us the heebie-jeebies.”

Hmmmm?

Further research necessary. Hopefully, it’ll bear succulent, salubrious fruit.

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