Whitetail Feedback

Last week’s “What deer?” column drew reader comments, some written, another phoned, all throwing in their two-cents’ worth about the status of our Franklin County deer herd. Not one painted a rosy picture.

The freshest response came by cell phone Tuesday evening around 5. It was Phil Phillips, an old chum from my hometown of South Deerfield. Phillips, his father, brothers and many Phillipses before them have hunted Franklin County for many generations, eyes and ears in the local woods, fields and streams. So his observations are as worthy of attention as anyone’s. He’s passed 60, has lived here all his life and thus has an extended sample period on which to base his opinions; what I would call a credible source, no ax to grind.

Anyway, the incident Phillips wanted to share involved a coyote, a good-sized fawn and a Bernardston golf outing. He wasn’t sure of the date but guessed it was late July or early August, so the fawn was a couple of months old, by that age presumably capable of fleeing danger. The scene Phillips and his partner witnessed left a lasting impression. He only witnessed a brief segment of the chase and actually played an intentional role favorable to the prey, but in his opinion, the young, stressed deer was dead meat.

The scene unfolded in broad daylight on a fairway that skirts the driveway leading to Bella Notte, a hilltop restaurant overlooking Crumpin-Fox Club. Phillips and his partner had teed off and were headed down the fairway in a cart when they noticed a fleeing deer exit the woods and run straight down Broadway with fear written all over it. The animal passed the cart and Phillips knew from the way it was acting that it was being pursued. Curious, he started scanning the woods line and, sure enough, spotted a single coyote running along the edge. The predator tried several times to dart out across the fairway but Phillips did his best to stay between it and its intended path, giving the deer a chance to get away. The brazen coyote was determined, truing several times to beat Phillips to the pass, but Phillips was able to seal off its path temporarily. Finally, the coyote tired of challenging the cart, looped across the road and likely circled back to pick up the deer’s trail.

“That deer had spots but it wasn’t tiny and I would have thought it was big enough to get away,” Phillips said, “but I don’t believe that deer made it. Just a hunch, but it looked disoriented and tired and worn out. I’ve thought about it often and had to call after reading your piece. After all these years of doe permits and cutbacks, you’d think the herd would be getting bigger but it seems to be going the other way. Coyotes must be a factor.”

Phillips is not alone in this opinion. Conventional wisdom among our most experienced woodsmen, ones who can compare what they see now in their favorite haunts to what they were seeing 40 to 70 years ago, don’t hesitate to opine a deer decline. Question what’s left of our dairy farmers — a dying breed that cuts the hay, plants the corn, picks the fruit and harrows the fields — and they’ll sing a similar tune. Meanwhile, the state’s deer-management team assured us that our local deer herd has never been healthier. So how does a simple pedestrian reconcile such a discrepancy of opinion? Confusing, to say the least; to some, downright annoying.

A couple of other respondents, both e-mailers, had interesting observations to share. One was from Conway, the other an Ashfield farmer, both deer hunters with opinions.

First the logger, who knew and had hunted the woods surrounding a secluded trail I elusively described in last week’s column. He wrote: “I would concur with your article about herd count and deer management here in Massachusetts. Living and hunting in Conway since the mid-70s and seeing where we are today doesn’t even come close to where we were then. At that time I worked as a logger and remember as clear as it was yesterday one cold January morning in 1980, snow on the ground a month after the season, coming across a herd of 14 deer in the area you spoke of. They pretty much stood and watched as the skidder went by, not threatened whatsoever. This was not an uncommon sight here in Conway then. Come this time of year, you could not drive at night without seeing deer standing in the road looking for salt and whatever else they could find. It was not uncommon to see 10 or 12 deer throughout the hunting week, maybe does or ones you couldn’t get a shot at. Today, that is not the case, and it is quite a surprise when you do see a deer any time of year. With the report of fewer hunters in the woods, one would think that the numbers would go the other way, but that does not seem the case. Not sure what the answer is. Hopefully there is someone out there smarter than those of us out in the woods.”

This man isn’t sure why deer seem to be scarcer these days, but he speculated that coyotes and bears were contributing to fawn mortality. Many armchair biologists suspect the same, and now apparently there are some scholarly reports citing spring bear predation of fawns. Perhaps more research is needed.

As for the Ashfield man who chimed in, he no longer farms but does hunt his acreage alongside friends who’ve hunted together for many years. He was recently dismayed after completing his second straight deer season with zero kills by his party, and he thinks he understands why.

“Our crew consists of three to six hunters on different days and we have hunted the same area of Ashfield for 25 years,” he wrote. “Up until two years ago, we would take three to five deer a year. I have a landowner’s doe permit because I grew up here on a dairy farm that is no longer in business. … I could go on about what MassWildlife is doing and saying, but I have a little different theory about what’s going on. I call it the Vermont theory. The last two does I took weighed 140 pounds (2007) and 150 pounds (2008). The Gould’s Sugarhouse biologist estimated the second one at 11½ years old. I had noticed then that the groups of deer had very few fawns with them. Everyone says natural predators are the reason but they’ve been around for years and the deer herd was still good. Between 1992 and 2007, hunting was as good as it gets around here. During those years, other than my landowner’s permit, I think our group might have received two doe permits. Because the herd has been mismanaged, there are too many old does that don’t carry fawns. From what I have researched about this situation, these older does will dominate areas, even chase bucks away. By the way, we have not even seen a buck during hunting season for two years. It appears to me that MassWildlife has ruined our deer herd in some areas of WMass by duplicating what happened in Vermont with our herd.”

Remember, this is the observation of a man familiar with animals, having been raised on a centuries-old dairy farm. I have never before heard this menopausal-doe theory but find it interesting after personally witnessing some huge does dragged out of the woods in recent years. It never really occurred to me that these older females were no longer reproductive, but I suppose it could be the case. I’ll have to look into it further. Maybe someone will chime in. I too have seen far fewer “skipper” tracks in the snow in recent years, a complaint I have heard echoed by many hunters bemoaning spring coyote predation.

Maybe there’s more to it than that. Stay tuned.

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