MONTPELIER — The most dramatic changes in Vermont deer hunting for some 50 years have been proposed for consideration by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board.
During the board’s Feb. 27 meeting, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department unveiled its “Rule Change Proposal” that would, along with other major changes, impose a one-buck rule for all but youth hunters and open 11 of 21 wildlife management areas to all legal bucks, including spiked bucks.
Hunters may now take two bucks during any of the three adult deer seasons — the archery, rifle and muzzleloader seasons.
Under current law, taking a spiked buck (usually a one-year-old buck with two spikes emerging from its skull) is illegal, with the exception of children taking part in the annual Youth Hunt.
The rules, if voted upon favorably by the 13-member Fish & Wildlife Board, would not take place until 2020, according to Louis Porter, Fish & Wildlife commissioner.
Other major changes under review by the board include:
— A four-day antlerless muzzleloader season to be held Oct. 29 to Nov. 1. (Currently, a nine-day muzzleloader season is held in early December.)
— An archery season that would allow hunting with crossbows to everyone. (Currently, only those over the age of 50 or those with a disability can hunt with a crossbow.)
— Bow hunters could take a spiked buck during the archery season, removing antler restrictions during the bow-hunting season.
— A “novice” hunt to run concurrently with the current, two-day youth hunt. “A novice would be someone who has not held a license (in Vermont) before,” Porter said. “We would restrict it to Vermont residents.”
— Specified areas with high populations of does would be open for archery hunting where multiple tags would be issued. That season would open Sept. 19, two weeks before the regular bow season opens.
Asked to comment on how significant the changes are, Porter said, “Oh, they’re huge.”
All of the proposals that a team of biologists have put together, after some four years of work, are interconnected, Porter said.
“For this to work, these elements have to hang together because each of these pieces has an impact on the other part,” Porter said. “We had to look at the full range of deer seasons and regulations in order to make sure we can both manage the deer herd and provide hunting opportunities that hunters want.”
One big problem, biologists have argued for a number of years, is the over-population of antlerless (also referred to as doe) deer in Vermont. An effort over two decades of by-permit-only antlerless hunting during the nine-day muzzleloader season in December has not had the results that Fish & Wildlife envisioned. In fact, deer permits for the hunt failed to reach the department’s quota; that is, there were more permits available than hunters wanted.
Meanwhile, a drastic decline in the number of deer hunters over the past three or four decades and an increase in posted land has led to an increase in antlerless deer to the point that Fish & Wildlife decided that some sweeping, but needed, changes had to be made in deer hunting regulations.
The Fish & Wildlife Department is facing a double-edged dilemma: a severe decline in the number of hunters and an increased deer population.
Hunting license sales have declined by more than 40 percent in Vermont over just three decades.
“We think these regulations are important in order to provide more opportunities for hunters and to ensure that we can manage deer populations,” Porter said. “It will allow us to manage doe populations, including in some places where it is difficult to manage those populations, like around city areas and those places that are heavily posted.”
Antler restrictions, meaning that taking a spike buck is illegal, were instituted in 2005. In years past, the spiked buck kill could run as high as 25 percent of the annual kill during the rifle season.
Nevertheless, Fish & Wildlife officials have maintained that the hunting public has supported the proposal, despite the fact that the annual buck kill decreased by thousands of deer. In the decade between 1991 and 2000, the kill exceeded 10,000 bucks six times, and all but one year saw kills of over 9,000 bucks. Since the spike buck ban, the highest kill was in 2018, when 7,458 bucks were tagged. In the last decade, the kill was below 7,000 bucks in seven years.
Taking the spiked bucks out of the mix, according to Fish & Wildlife, meant those one-year-old deer would get the opportunity to grow and that would mean bigger and heavier bucks. And that has occurred, with hunters wearing big smiles and holding up some really impressive deer. Meanwhile, another school of thought is that, by taking spiked bucks out of the hunting mix, some deer hunters, particularly hunters who are more focused on venison than on big antlers, grew frustrated and no longer hunted deer in Vermont.
Porter said the changes under consideration would give deer hunters more opportunities, particularly in wildlife management areas located along the spine of the Green Mountains and in the Northeast Kingdom, to shoot spiked buck, if they so desired.
Porter said he believes this proposal “will improve the hunter’s ability to hunt in the way they want to,” because they can choose to hunt in those wildlife management units where bigger, older bucks are found and spiked bucks are not legal or hunt in those areas where spiked bucks are legal and “if you’re a meat hunter and want to take one legal buck, you will be able to.”
According to Fish & Wildlife Deer Team leader Nick Fortin, Vermont deer hunters had an outstanding year in 2018, with a deer kill of 19,028 that takes in the youth, archery, rifle and muzzleloader seasons. The buck kill for all four seasons was 10,011, with 7,458 bucks tagged during the firearms season, the most heavily-hunted season of the year.
Fortin was reluctant to estimate the current deer population in Vermont, primarily because the current winter has been particularly hard for deer and is still not over.
But Fortin assessed what may come to pass: a 2018-19 winter kill that could take out thousands of deer, particularly in deep-snow areas of the state. A combination of deep snow and severe cold can have a killing effect on deer survival. Back in the early 1980s, the cost of one severe winter cut the deer herd by about one half, with more than 60,000 deer dead and wasted in deer yards.
“We’re having a pretty hard winter in much of Vermont now,” Fortin said. “We’re probably looking at, at least, a 7 percent to 10 percent decline in the deer population.
“I don’t like to say that this winter is helping us reach our goal by killing deer … the reality is this winter is going to reduce our deer population, and that needs to happen,” he said.
That point, Fortin said, begs this question, one that is stressed in the new deer proposal: “What are we sparing the deer for? Why are we not letting hunters shoot young deer? Let people shoot a spike horn. They can eat that deer. That’s better than letting it starve to death,” Fortin said.
Mark Scott, director of wildlife for the department, said Vermont deer hunting is at a “critical juncture.”
“The reason behind this proposal is to shoot a lot more antlerless deer in this state,” Scott said. “The current system, the muzzleloader season in December, is not taking enough deer for us.”
Scott said that Fish & Wildlife “opened up all the deer rules, starting about four years ago. We collected data. We reduced the buck limit to two and started collecting (deer) teeth to help us get even more data. We really feel confident that this is comprehensive and we’ll continue to monitor this every year and over a five-year period.”