Weston voters will be asked to ban hunting on town lands this spring even as the Conservation Commission recommends continuing a deer management program that opened five wooded areas to bow hunters last fall.
Weston Deer Friends has asked selectmen to hold off deciding whether to renew the controlled deer hunt until after Town Meeting in May, said Diane Anderson, who helped start the organization to oppose the inaugural hunt.
“We submitted our petitions, and what happens now is the bow-hunting issue will be put to a vote at Town Meeting. Meanwhile, we continue to get the word out and educate residents about the issue so they will be informed voters when they come to Town Meeting,” Anderson said.
Members of Weston Deer Friends, and their signs asking passing motorists to honk in support, have become a regular sight most weekends along Route 20 near the center of town.
“There has been lots of cars honking,” Anderson said. “We see that as a positive sign.”
The Conservation Commission wants to continue the management program, which opened hundreds of acres of conservation land to 26 screened hunters as a way to help rein in what is seen as an overpopulation of deer in the community.
The town board concluded last year that reducing the deer population would begin to address concerns about Lyme disease, preserve underbrush and expensive landscaping frequently foraged on by deer, and reduce the number of collisions between the animals and vehicles.
“The commission considers the program a success,” said Weston’s conservation agent, Michele Grzenda. “Obviously, bow hunting alone is not the be-all, end-all to the deer and deer tick problem. It is a multifaceted issue. But this was a good start.”
Selectmen are reviewing the commission’s report on last fall’s deer hunt, and have agreed to hold off making any decisions on continuing the program until after Town Meeting, said Conservation Commission member Brian Donahue, an environmental historian and associate professor at Brandeis University.
In the meantime, Donahue said, he and his students are assessing damage caused by deer to saplings and other vegetation in the town’s woods. Plans are in the works for a census of lady slippers, a regional orchid species that has been ravaged by over-foraging deer, Donahue said.
“The lady slipper is a bellwether of the impact the deer are having. If we can get people out into the forests, they can see for themselves the effects,” Donahue said. “Deer can be gradually reduced to a healthy herd that is sustainable and we will see a return of these species.
“It is not an all or nothing thing. We are seeking a level of deer population that works for us,” Donahue said.
According to the Conservation Commission’s report, the hunters killed 18 deer — 10 does and eight bucks — on five tracts of town land between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31. Each hunter logged an average of 10 hunting days, according to the program’s electronic database.
Hunters also noted in the log that they frequently saw several deer at a time, along with other wildlife species, including red-tailed hawk, fisher, owl, coyote, red fox, turkey, and raccoon, and no shortage of ticks. The summary also notes the longterm study started in November by Brandeis to assess the effect of deer grazing in Weston’s woods.
Hunters noted most interactions with residents were positive, including one hunter who said he was thanked by a resident who had Lyme disease, which is transmitted by deer ticks. While one hunter reported being confronted by a resident who opposed hunting, neither the local Police Department nor the Massachusetts Environmental Police received any complaints about the hunters during the season, the report states.
But Weston Deer Friends member Isabella Jancourtz said she called police to complain about a hunter in camouflage who came too close to her house. “He was gone by the time the cruiser arrived, having walked off into the woods without responding when we called out to ask what he was doing there,” she said.
The group also takes issue with the town’s assertion that the hunting will limit vehicle accidents involving deer. Anderson said police records available at the town library show there were 26 deer-car collisions in 2011, down from 28 in 2010 and 36 in 2009.
“We discovered deer collisions had declined before the program even started,” Anderson said. “We maintain one of the best ways to lower the number of deer collisions is for people to lower their speeds. If people just slow down, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem.”
The antihunting group also assailed officials for enacting a program to kill deer without first establishing baseline information, including how many deer call Weston home. According to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Weston and its suburban neighbors have an estimated 25 deer per square mile, compared with a target range of six to eight deer per square mile.
Weston Deer Friends members question the state’s numbers, too, saying that MassWildlife has a vested interest in promoting hunting since it is partially funded through the fees for hunting licenses.
“If there is such an abundance of deer and these archers are so precise, why did they get just 18 deer? The nature of the program, the way it was set up, if they can only kill 18 deer a year, nothing is going to change, whereas a contraceptive approach would do more,” Anderson said.
Despite the local opposition, Grzenda said, she was encouraged the town is on the right path by a recent report from a special state commission on Lyme disease. The commission last month urged the expansion of bow hunting as part of a multipronged approach to reduce the disease’s incidence.
Meanwhile, both the Conservation Commission and Weston Deer Friends are planning to hold public forums in advance of Town Meeting, which opens May 13.
The commission’s April 23 panel on options for managing the free-ranging deer population will include two researchers from Tufts University’s department of infectious disease and global health, tick expert Sam Telford III and Allen T. Rutberg, who has studied the effectiveness of controlling deer and wild horse populations through contraceptives. Also featured will be John McDonald, an expert on deer population dynamics from Westfield State University.
Weston Deer Friends will hold its forum, “Living With Deer and Without Lyme Disease,” May 1 at the Weston Public Library. Speakers will include Jay F. Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Mont., who has received federal approval to use a dart-gun-fired contraceptive to curb wild horse populations, a method that trials have shown to work in other wild animals, including deer; and wildlife biologist Laura J. Simon of the Humane Society of the United States.