ST. ALBANS — Like maple sugaring and mud season, attending the local annual deer and moose hearing held by Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department is a spring tradition.

This year’s local hearing, with about 50 people attending, was held in the cafeteria of St. Albans Town Educational Center Thursday night, was a kind of check-in on the status of moose and deer herds in Vermont.

It also gave local hunters a chance to share stories and common frustrations from the past season as well as give input on regulation change proposals.

“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to hear from every single one of you,” said the state’s director of wildlife, Mark Scott. Before going any further in the meeting, Scott thanked all the hunters and landowners in the room.

“We wouldn’t be able to manage white tail deer without you folks,” he said.

Moose & deer

Wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander shared an overview of the state’s data on moose and deer herds for 2014.

Of the 288 people permitted to hunt moose, 149 had successful kills last year – a 52 percent success rate. A total of 22 moose were taken during archery season.

“We get a lot of very important information from harvested moose that are brought into biological stations,” said Alexander. For instance, the average weight of a dressed out moose cow was 528 pounds – 150 pounds less than 10 to 15 years ago.

In addition, the twinning rate for moose offspring is only 10percent, compared to more than 25 percent over a decade ago.

“It’s not as common as it should be,” said Alexander.

The issue, he added, appears to be winter ticks that attach themselves to moose as larvae in the tens of thousands. In the spring, this could mean 30,000 ticks are feeding on the blood of a single moose, reducing weight and the ability for female moose to reproduce.

The good news is, last year’s tick count data was down 41 percent from the year before. “That bodes well,” said Alexander.

As for Vermont deer, it appears that they are diminishing to a number closer to the ideal healthy herd size. Fish and Wildlife is looking to have a herd between 101,000 and 140,000, and in 2014, it was estimated that there were about 130,000 deer in the state.

Out of those, 13,590 were harvested in 2014, about 500 fewer than the previous year, though right around the three-year average of 13,402. About 59 percent of the deer harvested in 2014 were bucks, 35 percent does and six percent fawns.

From the deer examined at the biological stations set up during last year’s youth hunt, Alexander said some slightly concerning results for weight and antler data were gathered.

“They’ve dropped down two years in a row now,” said Alexander, adding that two severe winter seasons and fewer food resources for the deer could be major factors.

“That’s a little concerning, but they could bounce back up,” he said.

Proposed changes

Biologists have recommended that the Fish and Wildlife board reduce moose hunting permits –archery and regular season – by 20 percent and only allow bull hunting due to a declining trend in moose sightings.

Other rule changes include, extending the waiting period for hunters to re-enter the lottery after winning a moose hunting permit from three to five years beginning this year, as well as being required to preserve the ovaries of a female moose when bringing the carcass to a biological station.

While the possible moose rule changes seemed rather unexciting to most hunters in the room, the proposed alterations to the deer rule were a different story.

According to Scott, Vermont Fish and Wildlife has conducted an intensive deer hunting regulation re-examination over the past two and a half years. As part of the process, the department has asked for a lot of feedback from the public through surveys, meetings, e-mailed comments and hearings.

Scott added that the department’s regulation board has everything on the table, and is looking to find better ways to achieve Fish and Wildlife’s three management goals: maintain the health of the deer herd; meet the objectives of the department’s Big Game Plan for 2010-2020; and increase hunting opportunities to encourage participation.

What’s worrying, said Scott, is the declining area of young forestland for deer (down from 9.5 percent of Vermont’s forests in 1997 to just 7 percent in 2012), winter habitat (only about 10 percent of the state currently) and unposted land for hunters to access.

Posted land, for instance, has increased from about 100,000 acres in 1990 to 225,000 acres today.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Scott.

In response to all these challenges, Fish and Wildlife has proposed a number of changes to the deer rule for Vermont. These include:

  • Expanding the first part of archery season by 10 days
  • Maintaining the second split of archery season at the same time as muzzleloader season
  • Legalizing crossbows for all hunters regardless of age
  • Reducing archery and muzzleloader season bag limits from three deer to two
  • Banning the possession and use of synthetic natural urine-based lures beginning in 2016 to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
  • Continuing to monitor effects of Antler Point Restriction (APR) for buck age management for another three years
  • Making changes in several years to the archery harvest numbers to adjust to season expansion and crossbow legalization
  • Potentially creating an early muzzleloader season
  • Possibly adjusting season dates
  • Potentially limiting deer drives

 Response

To discuss the presented rule changes and the state of deer hunting in general, meeting attendees broke into groups and shared their thoughts with a group of eight or 10 others.

At one table filled with hunters with ages ranging from 20s to 80s and hometowns across Franklin, Grand Isle and Chittenden counties, there was general consensus on several things: posted land is a problem, in general the hunting population is aging without being replaced by the next generation, and the science behind the proposed APR studies and the urine-based lure ban doesn’t appear to be conclusive.

Land posting appears to be a growing issue in Franklin County.

“It’s 90 percent posted nowadays, it seems like,” said Tim Sherrer, 49, of St. Albans.

Randy Barrows, 59, of Milton, said it seemed the problem stemmed from new, non-Vermonters coming in, buying land, not wanting to see any animal killed, and therefore posting their land.

The group also addressed the issue of losing young hunters who may not see the excitement in sitting in the cold woods for days without sighting a deer.

“They’ll stay home and play videogames,” said Barrows.

Regarding those that are lucky enough to harvest their own deer during youth season, the group agreed there’s an issue with children under of 10 shooting a gun. They also discussed the emerging problem with younger, enthusiastic hunters shooting younger, antlerless deer and then transitioning with bad habits to an adult license, since bucks must reach a certain age and certain antler size to be harvested.

“It doesn’t promote good hunting,” said Desrochers.

He suggested that once a youth tags a deer, he or she should be required to hunt under an adult license with the adult rules, even if he or she isn’t 16 yet.

The group moved on to talk about the APR monitor study and natural urine-based lure ban, and how there didn’t seem to be much sense to either. On the APR study, the group agreed it’s already been in place for 10 years, and if conclusive data hasn’t already been collected, it most likely won’t be in another three years.

As for the natural urine-based lure ban, the group felt there were more risks than CWD, like cars, posted land and over harvesting.

“This is going to be a hit on hunting all together,” said Shawn Shaffer, 47, of Burlington.

When all the groups reconvened and shared their thoughts – which ranged on the proposed rules – Scott told the meeting participants how important their input was.

“This information is very important for us and the board to process,” said Scott. “The more comments and the more thoughtful and deliberate we can be, [the better].”