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Managing Deer Populations

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A Matter of Balance


By Sonja Christensen | Deer Project Leader


Human and deer populations have shared the Massachusetts landscape for thousands of years, and they continue to do so today. How people feel about deer depends largely on what experiences they have had with them. People who hunt deer, or who enjoy watching or photographing them, value deer very highly. But when deer abundance exceeds human tolerance (we call this “cultural carrying capacity”), deer are often viewed in a negative light, and even considered pests. This isn’t surprising since overabundant deer populations can severely damage natural plant communities, increase the risk of tick-borne illnesses and deer- vehicle collisions, and can cause significant damage to shrubbery and other landscape plantings.
deer_doe browsing hawthorn.psd
The major challenge for biologists is to keep deer populations in balance with human tolerance, and thus to reduce negative attitudes while enhancing positive ones. When a deer population exceeds human tolerance it is typically due to one or more of the following issues:

Deer-vehicle collisions

According to State Farm Insurance’s industry-wide deer-vehicle collision report, an estimated 7,000 deer-vehicle collisions occurred last year in Massachusetts. On a national basis, the average property damage cost of a deer-vehicle collision was $3,050. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that deer-vehicle collisions in the U.S. cause more than 150 fatalities each year. In Massachusetts, deer-vehicle collisions are most frequent during the breeding season in late October and through November. The combination of high deer populations and the displacement of deer habitat due to urban sprawl have created dangerous situations for motorists and deer alike.

Property damage to landscape plants or crops

Deer often cause problems for homeowners and farmers when they browse heavily on crops, gardens, or landscape plants. There is no provision in state law or regulation for compensation to landowners for damage caused by deer. Thus, it is to the benefit of landowners to try to prevent crop and planting damage by deer before a significant problem develops. This can be done by excluding deer with electric or wire fencing, deterring deer with sprays, loud noises, or other repellents, or by removing deer during the regulated hunting season.

Lyme disease risk

Lyme disease, which does not affect white-tailed deer but is closely associated with them, is a bacterial disease transmitted to people (as well as many other domestic animals) by the bite of infected Blacklegged Ticks (Ixodes scapularis, also known as deer ticks). Deer are one of the important hosts for adult Blacklegged ticks, and they aid in both transporting ticks across the landscape and maintaining tick populations. The life cycle of ticks is complicated, and the larval stage uses many hosts, mostly small rodents, including the white-footed mouse. Once the adult and nymphal ticks have consumed a blood meal, they drop off the host and continue the life cycle. High deer densities have been shown to be correlated with high densities of Blacklegged Ticks, increasing the risk of Lyme Disease transmission to humans. This is another precautionary reason to control deer populations, particularly in suburban areas. If not diagnosed properly and treated early, Lyme disease can lead to serious health problems.

Deer Management Goals

Deer Management Zones

Deer per Square Mile

Zones 1-6


Zones 7-9


Zones 10-14


Environmental damage

Based on a variety of research on the impacts of deer browsing on forest ecosystems, it has been shown that over-abundant deer populations can cause severe ecological damage. Excessive deer browsing can result in reduced native plant diversity, an increase in non-native invasive plants, a decrease in forest regeneration, and a loss of habitat for other animals that rely on the forest understory. These ecological impacts are often overlooked since they do not affect humans directly, but the consequences for the few natural, open lands that remain in many suburban areas, are dire.

Despite the deer related conflicts listed above, many people do appreciate white-tailed deer and understand their importance as a native wildlife population. Hunters use the venison from harvested deer as a lean, “free-range” protein which keeps their freezers full throughout the winter. Wildlife enthusiasts of all types enjoy watching deer, collecting shed antlers in the woods, and photographing these beautiful animals in their environment.

Managing Deer

deer_urban whitetail fawns _by Marion Larson.tif

In Massachusetts white-tailed deer are managed as a valuable natural resource. The Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (DFW) sets deer density goals at levels that balance social and environmental values. These deer density goals are the basis for deer population management which is accomplished through regulated hunting and through the annual allocation of Antlerless Deer Permits for each Wildlife Management Zone. When hunters bring their deer to an official deer check station, they provide biological data that is compiled and analyzed by DFW biologists. Based on this information, they recommend antlerless deer permit allocations for the following season. By managing deer abundance and keeping deer populations at or below human tolerance levels, we avoid the negative consequences associated with deer over-population.

Currently there are an estimated 90,000 white-tailed deer in the Commonwealth. About 10,000 of them are taken during the hunting seasons, leaving 80,000 to live and breed. The annual deer harvest is a function of two things: the abundance of deer, and the effort put forth by hunters which is in large part a matter of land available on which to hunt (see article on Hunting Access. Suburban areas often have large populations of deer, but limited land available for hunting. Where deer reproduction exceeds mortality, the deer population will continue to grow.

West of Route 495, in Wildlife Management Zones 1–9, deer densities have reached goal levels, and where hunters have access to sufficient land open to hunting, these populations have begun to stabilize. East of Route 495 in Zones 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14, access to huntable land is often severely restricted, varying on a town by town basis, and making it very difficult to manage deer.

Over 50% of the state’s annual deer harvest comes from Wildlife Management Zones east of Route 495 (Zones 10–14). Yet these zones contain only 30% of the total deer range in the state. The suburban nature of these zones, particularly in Zone 10, allows deer to live in back yards and fragmented patches of forest that offer very little hunter access and an abundance of foods. Garden plants, landscape trees and shrubs, and even bird feeders provide supplemental food for these suburban deer populations.

But deer management goals can be maintained statewide, even in highly developed, suburban areas. Where firearms are prohibited by local ordinances, hunters can effectively take deer with archery equipment and they can continue to use archery equipment in these areas throughout the shotgun and muzzleloader seasons. This is highly effective and in fact, in Zone 10, the archery harvest recently surpassed the shotgun harvest in number of deer taken.

It is important that landowners, hunters, and biologists work together to safely and effectively manage the Commonwealth’s deer resource and to meet the desired population density goals. If done correctly, we can all enjoy the benefits of a healthy statewide deer population.


Regulations in red are new this year.

Purple text indicates an important note.

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