WESTON — A hunter clad head to toe in camouflage headed for his tree stand by a swamp in Weston’s Jericho Town Forest, just a few minutes’ hike from a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes.
“That’s fresh,” said Dan Wolff, 48, of Waltham, nudging a pile of deer scat along a game trail.
Reaching the stand, he climbed up the ladder before hauling his Parker Enforcer crossbow behind him. Now it was a matter of waiting for the deer to come into view.
This month, Weston launched its first deer hunt on public land in recent memory, joining a growing number of suburban communities — including Dover, Medfield, Sudbury, and Framingham — looking to bow hunters to help limit their expanding deer populations. On Oct. 15, the same day the hunting season began in Weston, voters in Westborough approved opening town properties to bow hunting for deer.
The new policy has provoked fierce debate in Weston. Supporters say hunting is necessary to protect private property, restore ecological balance to the woods, and stem the spread of deer ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease to humans. Opponents decry the practice as cruel and dangerous.
“We’re trying to stress to residents and others that bow hunting can be done in a very safe and effective way,” said Michele Grzenda, the town’s conservation administrator. “I have been trying to stress to them that hunting is compatible with other passive recreational activities. There also are several nonhunting areas people can enjoy.”
Weston has opened five parcels of conservation land to 26 archers, chosen through a screening process, for the 2½-month season, which ends Dec. 31. The hunters, who passed background checks and an archery test, must follow state hunting regulations as well as rules specific to Weston.
Nevertheless, some residents, including Alicia Primer, fear the hunt is ruining the natural setting that drew them to live in Weston. Primer is cofounder of an antihunting group, Deer Friends of Weston, and lives near one of the parcels, known as the Sears Land, now open for hunting.
“I frequently walk back there with my big dog and my children. I am very concerned about safety. I know the town has discounted our safety concerns, but I am still concerned,” Primer said. “I am also concerned about the cruelty-to-animals message we are sending to our children. I don’t want to see a deer with an arrow through its neck running into our yard — nor do I want to see my children see that.”
In the first week of the hunt, the town received dozens of e-mails from supporters of the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and about half as many phone calls complaining about the presence of archers in the woods, Grzenda said. Three deer were taken during that time.
State wildlife officials estimate that Weston has 25 deer per square mile, while the community is more suited to just six to eight deer per square mile. Weston has 11,478 people and approximately 425 deer packed into just 17 square miles, an area that includes 2,000 acres of conservation land and some 100 miles of walking and horseback riding trails.
A survey of Weston residents found most have concerns about the spread of Lyme disease, and favor reducing the number of deer, while the woods around town are showing signs of degradation due to the overpopulation of deer, Grzenda said. Collisions with deer occur on average 31 times a year — about every other week — on Weston’s narrow and winding roads, according to the Conservation Commission.
“Deer like conservation areas like this,” Wolff said last Saturday morning while walking to his tree stand, set up on a rise not far up a trail off Ripley Lane. “They settle down here and spoke out into the neighborhoods for their food.”
Before Wolff showed up to hunt that morning, a neighbor walking her dog on a nearby trail had jokingly said to her pet, “Come on, girl, let’s hope we don’t get shot by a hunter.”
Selectmen voted last spring to initiate the limited deer hunt at the recommendation of the Conservation Commission. The commission also looked at other options to reduce the number of deer, including the hiring of sharpshooters, trapping deer and releasing them elsewhere, and injecting female deer with contraceptives — a technique that has been studied only on captive herds and island deer populations.
Some residents wanted the town to pursue the contraception effort, Grzenda said, “but trapping deer is not permitted in Massachusetts and it has not been tried on a free-ranging deer herd.”
While state wildlife officials cite suburban bow hunting for a record harvest of 3,765 white tail deer by archers last year in Massachusetts, some area communities are not the embracing the practice.
In Needham, the sight of a hunter in a tree stand near a popular hiking spot last year prompted a vote at Town Meeting in May to ban the discharge of arrows on town land, Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said. However, hunting is still allowed on private property and a stretch of federal land near the Town Forest and Ridge Hill Reservation.
Despite the new deer management program, hunting is not entirely new in Weston.
Some nine to 19 deer a year are killed legally by hunters on private property around town, according to a Conservation Commission report issued in May. Even on conservation lands traditionally closed to hunting, the town has found signs of illegal hunting. In the Jericho Town Forest, Wolff reported finding an illegal tree stand and an abandoned hunting blind, complete with a chair, when he was setting up his own town-approved ladder stands.
“I have two set up. That way, I can hunt depending on wind direction,” said Wolff, who has a chronic back problem and a special permit from the state to use a trigger-operated crossbow instead of the usual hunting bow, which is harder to draw.
Wolff, who also runs Mass. Deer Service Inc. to connect private property owners with hunters, praised Weston for the thorough manner in which it has implemented the hunting program. He said town officials like Grzenda have been as pragmatic as they have been diplomatic — something Wolff admitted he cannot always be when confronted by hunting opponents.
“My position won’t change no matter what somebody else tells me about hunting and the same is true on the other side,” he said. “Someone once told me probably 10 percent of the population hunts and 10 percent are absolutely against it. It is the 80 percent in between — the on-the-fencers — who with an open mind maybe can be educated about the need for proper herd management.”
Weston’s 26 approved hunters have access to roughly 500 acres spread across the Jericho and Ogilvie town forests, Dickson Fields, Blaney Aquifer, and the Sears Land, with a 500-foot buffer zone keeping hunters away from nearby homes. The five areas remain open to hikers, joggers, bikers, and horseback riding, but signs have been posted warning of the presence of hunters every day except Sundays from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31.
The archers can hunt only from their stands and must carry identification, their town permit, and a map of the approved hunting areas, which they must show to anyone who asks. Kills must be reported to the Conservation Commission within 24 hours or by 5 p.m. the next business day, and all traces of the kill must be carried out or buried.
Westborough Town Manager Jim Malloy said his community will look at Weston’s experience in drawing up its new hunting program.