WESTON — The debate over whether to hunt deer has less to do with the science of managing wildlife populations in suburban areas than it does with navigating people’s gut reaction to killing animals, a Tufts University biologist told Weston residents during a forum on the issue last week.
A proposal to prohibit hunting on public land will go before Town Meeting next month, less than a year after Weston opened five sections of town forest to bow hunters. The 26 prescreened hunters taking part in the pilot program took 18 deer. The process prompted a petition drive, protests, and heated debate.
Allen Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said he was not surprised at the controversy.
“Although we argue about the science, the arguments really aren’t about the data but rather how to look at the data in terms of how we see the world,” Rutberg said during the gathering Tuesday at the community center, the first of two discussions scheduled to take place before annual Town Meeting begins May 13.
A group of residents supporting the proposed ban on hunting, Weston Deer Friends, will host a panel discussion, “Living with Deer and Without Lyme Disease,’’ at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Weston Public Library.
“We all have feelings about where people belong in nature and how people should relate to nature, and there are some people who believe humans should be active participants and should be active predators,” Rutberg said. “Others look for a more peaceful kingdom sort of approach, where humans and animals are supposed to live in some sort of balance and harmony without a human connection. When we fight about deer, that is what we mostly are fighting about.”
About 70 people piled into the center’s meeting room to listen to Rutberg and two other biologists discuss deer populations, attempts to control their numbers through hunting and contraceptives, the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, and the consequences of increased development in areas with deer but no predators.
The panel was organized by the town’s Conservation Commission, which wants to continue the hunting program.
“The commission unanimously believes that bow hunting on public land is the only practical way to control the deer population,” said Conservation Commission chairwoman Laurie A. Bent. “A change in the bylaws to prohibit hunting will remove the most reasonable and effective tool available to the town to reduce deer density and maintain a healthy forest.”
The town’s Finance Committee took no position on the hunting ban proposed in Article 20 on the Town Meeting warrant. While Weston Deer Friends’ petition points out that the town’s immediate neighbors — Lincoln, Natick, Newton, Waltham, Wayland, and Wellesley — do not permit hunting on public lands, other nearby communities have adopted similar bow-only deer hunting programs in response to concerns about Lyme disease. Those towns include Dover, Medfield, Sudbury, and Framingham.
Weston permits hunting only through its year-old deer management program, and only on specific tracts of town-owned land that can accommodate a 500-foot buffer zone to keep archers and arrows away from homes. The proposed ban would not affect hunting on private land.
John McDonald, assistant professor of environmental science at Westfield State University and formerly the deer project leader for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, laid out Weston’s deer situation with numbers.
Roughly 70 percent of the town’s 17 square miles is considered viable deer habitat. The state estimates Weston, like many suburban communities west of Boston, has 20 to 25 deer per square mile in a region more suited to just six to eight deer per square mile, McDonald said.
Based on a normal mortality rate of about 35 percent, and Weston’s estimated population of between 240 and 300 deer, he said, “that means 84 to 105 deer must die from something, and it is not going to be from mountain lions. It is not going to be wolves. I hope it is not going to be me driving home tonight.”
Deer, McDonald said, have demonstrated a surprising — to wildlife managers — ability to thrive in the absence of predators even in densely populated areas, leading to the current overpopulation. Other states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, have even more dense deer populations, ranging up to hundreds per square mile.
“Deer are prey,” McDonald said. “Our landscape lacks predators. Starvation is not a factor — deer are not going to starve to death in Weston . . . not in a landscape where you fertilize your lawns and your gardens. People kill deer either with cars or hunting. That is how deer die in suburban USA. That’s the cycle here. It is not Yellowstone Park.”
Tick expert Samuel R. Telford III, an epidemiologist in the Cummings School’s department of infectious disease and global health, focused on the rise of tick populations and Lyme disease along the same swath of Massachusetts suburbia, between interstates 95 and 495, that has seen deer populations swell.
“I used to go to Nantucket to collect ticks. Now I go to Dover,” he said.
Telford, who supports hunting to reduce deer populations and the incidence tick-borne illnesses, said the region needs to look at longer-term solutions.
One of the first people in the audience to ask a question was John Sanbonmatsu, a philosophy professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who objected to the use of the word “harvesting” for killing deer.
“Will you ever reflect on the fact you want to push these animals into smaller and smaller circles?” said Sanbonmatsu, an Arlington resident who attended the meeting in support of Weston Deer Friends. “Do you really mean the deer are responsible, that they are the culprits, when you began your talk talking about habitat encroachment and human development? It seems to me the culprit, the responsible party, is human beings.”
“I completely agree with you. We brought this upon ourselves,” Telford responded over catcalls of “enough” from the audience.
“Then why do you keep talking about killing?” Sanbonmatsu said.
“Because I am a public health person and we need some realistic answers,” Telford said. “And sadly, as much as we dislike it, we have to do something to protect human health, and that means something has to give, and that means animals do. It’s a matter of balancing human needs with respect for animals.”