Opposition groups unite to protest Blue Hills deer hunt

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As local hunters count down the days to the first legal, albeit strictly controlled deer hunt in the Blue Hills Reservation in more than a century, a growing collective of opponents have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure over what they allege to be an inhumane and largely ineffective attempt at population control.

Hunting opponents protest at the entrance to the Blue Hills in Canton. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Comeau)

Hunting opponents protest at the entrance to the Blue Hills in Canton. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Comeau)

The opponents, who are calling themselves the Friends of Blue Hills Deer, have held public demonstrations at the steps of the State House as well as at the entrance to the reservation in Canton near Blue Hill River Road, displaying signs with messages such as “Stop the Slaughter” and “Contraceptives not Cruelty.” Additional protests are being planned for the weeks leading up to the hunt, including one at the same Canton location this coming Sunday, November 22.

“The deer hunt, which is being called a ‘controlled hunt,’ will really be a massacre of terrified animals,” stated the Friends of Blue Hills Deer in a recent media release. “Baby deer will be killed and orphaned just before winter.”

Consisting of a broad coalition of animal rights groups, anti-hunting activists, and concerned citizens, the Friends have reached out directly to the governor’s office and local lawmakers and are still holding out hope that the hunt can be stopped or at least postponed. Their opposition is based on many grounds, including “concern for the deer, public safety fears, questions about the validity and obsolescence of the [state deer population] studies, misleading information about Lyme disease and deer, and the utter refusal to consider humane alternatives to hunting.”

As it stands, the hunt is set to take place over two two-day segments: November 30/December 1 and December 7-8. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation received over 2,400 applications and issued a total of 196 permits using a lottery system. Hunters will be permitted to use shotguns with slugs only, and they will be limited to specially designated management zones within the reservation north of I-93.

The purpose of the controlled hunt, according to the DCR, is not to introduce a new recreational opportunity but rather to address a “critical environmental problem,” namely the overabundance of white-tailed deer, which consume vegetation at a high rate and are believed to play a role in the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

A 2014 legislative mandate, sponsored by state Senator Brian A. Joyce as part of an Environmental Bond Bill, directed the DCR to develop and implement a deer management plan for overpopulated areas, and the agency, according to DCR spokesman Troy Wall, determined that a “controlled hunting program was the most feasible and cost-effective option” for the 7,000-acre Blue Hills reservation.

Yet those who oppose the hunt argue that the process that the DCR used to arrive at its conclusion was not only rushed but also deeply flawed.

In a joint letter to DCR Commissioner Carol Sanchez, representatives from the MSPCA, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and the Humane Society of the United States characterized the DCR’s plan as a “short-sighted, ineffective proposal that is inhumane for deer and potentially dangerous for people.”

In particular, the three organizations — who are all aligned with the Friends of Blue Hills Deer — state emphatically in their letter that deer culling is “not a viable solution for reducing deer numbers,” as the deer will simply compensate by reproducing at a faster rate. They also challenge the purported link between deer populations and Lyme disease rates, citing scientific research that suggests that “deer are among the most ineffective pathogen transmitters of Lyme” while noting that “no major health authority recommends deer culls to address human Lyme disease control.”

With regard to the three public meetings on the proposed hunt held in late September and early October, including one at the Ponkaoag Golf Course in Canton, critics say there was precious little time provided to actually air their concerns.

“Many of our group members tried to speak at the three public meetings about the hunt, but so little time was scheduled for public comments that they traveled there in vain,” wrote Helen and Steve Rayshick, founders of the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition and two of the primary organizers of the Friends of Blue Hills Deer, in an email to the Citizen.

Cynthia Guise, a Milton resident, said she had a similar experience at one of the DCR-sponsored meetings. “I just tried to go in with an open mind, but the more I heard the more I realized it was a done deal,” she said. “They didn’t give people enough time to really react and to digest the information that was presented.”

Guise said she has since taken part in one of the protests and also wrote a letter to the DCR asking the agency to postpone the hunt for a year so they can do more research. She said she is particularly concerned that the deer population estimates, which were based on surveys done in 2013, are no longer accurate or up to date, especially after last year’s historic winter.

“I feel like there needs to be another count before they sanction a deer hunt,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s a clear-cut thing.”

The DCR, for its part, believes it has done its homework on the issue and has more than enough evidence to suggest that the deer population in the Blue Hills has reached unsustainable levels. They also have a successful model to point to — the annual controlled hunt at the Quabbin Reservoir Watershed, which has led to substantially lower deer populations since the program was implemented in 1991.

As for calls by opposition groups to consider a more humane method of population control, such as contraception vaccines, the DCR has determined that they would be neither cost-effective nor practical in an open system with free-ranging deer populations. (Agencies such as the Humane Society of the United States dispute that assertion and have pointed to new and promising research into the efficacy of wildlife fertility control projects.)

The DCR, meanwhile, is not the only agency or organization that supports a controlled hunt in the Blue Hills. Others include the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the nonprofit Friends of the Blue Hills (FBH).

Unlike the similarly sounding Friends of Blue Hills Deer, FBH has been a vocal proponent of the hunt, citing concerns about forest regeneration and sustainability and the high incidence of Lyme disease in the region.

FBH President Denny Swenson, who lives on the Canton/Milton border and is a former Lyme disease sufferer herself, said the hunt is not a cure-all, but rather an important first step that will have both ecological and public health benefits.

“As a neighbor to the Blue Hills, I am grateful to the DCR for acknowledging there is a problem and for the years they have put into assessing it and now for taking steps to address it,” she said. “The Friends of the Blue Hills board understands the necessity to bring the deer population down for the health of the forest and its visitors.”

Yet others, like the Rayshicks, believe that a shotgun hunt in the Blue Hills would not only be misguided, but also cruel and potentially dangerous. And they are far from alone, according to anecdotal reports from the Friends of Blue Hills Deer.

“Support from the public has been incredible for the rallies to date,” said the Friends in a press release. “People are truly outraged, upset, and tired of being ignored. Many hunters are also opposed to this hunt and have been in contact with us with information and support, which has never happened before to our knowledge.”

“At each rally we were greeted with cheers and honks of support from local residents and met multiple bikers and hikers and other Blue Hills regular users who said they rarely or never see deer in the reservation,” added Helen and Steve Rayshick. “We sincerely hope the governor will listen to the public and stop the hunt.”

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