State and town officials are grappling with what will happen if Dover implements an expanded deer-hunting season to combat Lyme disease this year, and the question has started a dialogue about a regional evaluation of hunting in the suburbs.
Dover hopes to reduce its share of the deer population, which the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife puts at 20 deer per square mile in a region that should support only six to eight per square mile.
"The feeling is Dover is really close to ground zero for Lyme disease," said Harvey George, chairman of Dover's Board of Health. "The only reliable way to reduce Lyme disease appears to be to reduce the deer population and the amount of deer ticks," which can transmit the disease to humans.
But increased hunting could create a problem for neighboring towns.
"If Dover undertook a culling program, the deer would move out," George said.
Thomas K. O'Shea, assistant director of wildlife at the state agency, said expanding Dover's season, depending on what kind of additional hunting is allowed, could send deer temporarily into neighboring communities
Natick's Conservation Commission agent, Robert Bois, said he isn't as worried about deer from Dover - he thinks they already come and go across the town borders - as he is eager for a regional plan to tackle the problem.
"Overall, the deer population is out of control, and we've had Lyme disease incidents in this area," Bois said.
However, he said, the interlocking parcels of private and public land in Natick and neighboring towns, and the differing rules about how they can be hunted, represent a potential roadblock to that goal.
"It's a real maze, and the state would have to be party to that bigger issue," Bois said.
Opening land to hunters is not a simple process, O'Shea said. The patchwork of land-control interests, and differing limitations on what kind of weapons can be fired near residences, he said, pose "one of the biggest limits to deer management in Eastern Massachusetts. The fragmented suburban landscape presents barriers."
Needham is one example of that fragmentation, said the town's conservation officer, Kristen Phelps, who cited the various municipal entities that control deer habitat potentially involved in an expanded hunting arrangement.
"Ownership of large parcels is split here between four departments," Phelps said. "Park and Recreation manages town forests, the Conservation Commission manages Ridge Hill Reservation, then there's the School Department and the Board of Selectmen," she said.
Phelps supports a regional dialogue about hunting.
"There needs to be a broader conversation," she said. "I think it's a good conversation to initiate."
So does Jennifer Steel, assistant conservation agent at the Framingham Conservation Commission, a town in which O'Shea said only a portion of 4,000 acres of forest are huntable.
Steel and her colleagues have brought Sudbury Conservation Commission officials - who have worked to expand hunting on town lands since 1999 - to meetings of the Framingham board.
Steel said Framingham "leaned heavily on Sudbury's regulation and experience" in drafting a pilot program to open two previously protected habitats to deer hunters. And then the dialogue went further.
"The concept of a regional approach was broached," and the Framingham commission "at that time seemed to be very supportive of that idea," Steel said. "Is it needed? I would say, according to state statistics, yes. It's a question of the will" of area commissions, she added.
It's also a question of ecological sustainability, according to Lou Wagner, a Massachusetts Audubon Society scientist for Greater Boston. Wagner said deer numbers have strained the region's suburbs.
"Automobile accidents, incidents of Lyme disease, and, from a conservation point of view, many species of plants are beginning to disappear," Wagner said in citing problems from large deer populations. "The long-term regeneration of the forest is affected. In some areas, you can look through the forest floors and there's no vegetation left. That has an impact on a wide range of species of wildlife."
It is a relatively recent imbalance, according to Wagner, who said 20 years ago deer were harder to find in the area. Coordinated management is an encouraging development, he said.
"If just one community allows for expanded hunting, and one community does not, it creates less of an impact than a concerted effort," said Wagner. "What they're talking about sounds like the best approach. Getting more communities on board to help control deer population."
Edward Dennison, chairman of the Dover Conservation Commission, said cooperation among communities is the only practical solution.
"My personal view is to simply open public land to hunting," Dennison said. "But the deer population isn't going to go down appreciably. There are not enough hunters bagging enough deer to make a difference" in one town. "If you want to do this seriously, do something organized and systematic."
Steel said it would take the state's help to build the kind of regional plan that conservation commissions want.
"MassWildlife is centrally coordinated and the most efficient way of doing that," Steel said. "It would then have to grow and subdivide organically. Many towns have fairly broad bans on hunting, so the regulatory framework would have to be evaluated to figure out what units of management would make most sense."
O'Shea said his agency could help with the evaluation.
"What we can do is look at our data from the landscape perspective and identify areas and towns where it would be suitable to open areas for hunting," said O'Shea. "It's good that communities have identified access as the key to managing deer. We'd certainly be glad to work with towns together."