A New Era for Vermont Deer Hunting Begins
Quality Hunting and Effective Deer Management
Periodic changes to Vermont’s hunting regulations are necessary when new issues arise, conditions change, and new opportunities become available. Hunter numbers have been falling and continue to decline across the state, and the average age of hunters is becoming older. Deer numbers and their distribution are changing across Vermont, and winter mortality is becoming less significant as winters become shorter and milder. The desires of hunters and the general public are also evolving. Vermont’s previous deer hunting seasons and regulations were the result of many small changes instituted over time which were easy for hunters to adjust to. However, because all deer hunting regulations and seasons are intertwined, everything effects everything else. Large, substantive changes simply cannot be made piece-by-piece.
Rather than continue this piecemeal approach, the department and Fish and Wildlife Board decided that a comprehensive evaluation of deer management approaches and the entire hunting regulation and season structure would be more effective. Basically, if Vermont could start from scratch, what would be the best way to do it?
The Comprehensive Deer Management Evaluation began in 2013, involved significant hunter input, and culminated with a broad suite of changes that take effect this year. The department didn’t really start from scratch because traditions are important and previous regulations — for the most part — worked pretty well. The department hopes this updated regulation and season structure will provide a quality hunting experience for as many hunters as possible while also allowing for more effective deer management. (See General Hunting Information and Deer Hunting for specific regulations.)
Buck Age Structure Management
Recent surveys have clearly shown that the majority of Vermont hunters are interested in managing for older, larger bucks. With a strong interest in bucks and relatively high hunting pressure for a northern state with relatively low deer numbers, the pressure on Vermont’s buck population is high. For perspective, an estimated 70,000 active deer hunters in Vermont pursue roughly 25,000 bucks, or about 2.8 hunters for every buck. If hunters want to have a reasonable number of older bucks on the landscape, the number of bucks harvested must be limited. The antler restriction enacted in 2005 was an attempt to do just that, and it worked reasonably well in some areas. But in other areas it had little or no effect on the number of older bucks. The department believes that this new approach will be more effective at achieving buck age structure goals and help meet other population management and hunter satisfaction objectives.
One Buck Annual Limit
This change will reduce the harvest pressure on the buck population, thereby allowing more to survive to older age classes. Typically, around five percent of the total buck harvest each year is a hunter’s second buck. However, this regulation will also result in many hunters passing opportunities to harvest bucks, particularly younger bucks early in the season, because they do not want to be done buck hunting. Therefore, this change is expected to reduce the buck harvest rate by about ten percent in most areas.
Not only does this change help the state manage for older, larger bucks, but it also shifts some of the harvest pressure from bucks to antlerless deer. To manage deer effectively as hunter numbers continue to decline, more focus will need to be placed on hunting antlerless deer.
Regional Antler Point Restriction
Vermont is a small state, but substantial regional differences exist in deer habitat, deer density, hunting pressure, and winter severity. As a result, the effect of regulations such as an antler restriction differs from one region to another. What works in parts of Vermont is unnecessarily restrictive in some areas and ineffective in others. Therefore, the antler restriction will remain in effect in some WMUs but be removed in others.
In some areas, the reduced buck harvest rate caused by the one buck limit eliminates the need for an antler restriction. These are areas with large blocks of forest, low deer numbers, and relatively few hunters. Bucks grow older in these areas because they rarely cross paths with a hunter, not because they are protected by antler restrictions. In other areas, where hunting pressure is higher, relatively few bucks currently survive beyond two years old and the antler restriction will remain in effect. The combination of the antler restriction and a one buck limit will allow more bucks to survive to older age classes.
Extended Archery Season
The archery season will now run from October 1 thru December 15, with the exception of the 16-day rifle season, during which it will be closed. This longer season provides additional hunting opportunity, counteracts impacts to this season from the one buck limit, and helps to manage locally overabundant deer.
With the one buck limit in place, the buck harvest is not expected to increase during this longer season. Importantly, this extension should maintain or slightly increase the archery antlerless harvest. Because archery hunters tend to hunt in areas with higher deer densities, the antlerless harvest during this season comes from the areas where it is most needed. Archers are also more effective at harvesting deer in more developed landscapes where firearm hunting is prohibited by local ordinances, less tolerated by the public, or simply not the experience most hunters are looking for. Thus, maintaining and promoting the harvest of antlerless deer during the archery season is, and will continue to be, a key component of deer management in Vermont. (See Deer Hunting, for more information on archery deer season.)
All Archery Hunters Can Use Crossbows
All big game hunters can now use crossbows any time a vertical bow can be used. This change will potentially help recruit new people into archery hunting and keep existing archery hunters hunting longer.
Success rates tend to be greater with crossbows, so this change will likely cause a small increase in the archery harvest. The exact impact will depend on the number of new archery hunters recruited and how many hunters currently using vertical bows switch to crossbows. Again, an increase in the archery antlerless harvest is generally desirable. (See General Hunting Information, for more information on crossbow regulations, and Deer Hunting, archery deer season.)
An Antlerless Season
This new four-day season in late October gives hunters with an antlerless permit some extra time to fill that permit. This season is for antlerless deer only, and hunters must have both an antlerless permit and a muzzleloader license. Antlerless permits can be filled during this season or during the December muzzleloader season.
Antlerless permit fill rates during the December muzzleloader season have been averaging about 15 percent in recent years. This low fill rate means the department needs to recommend high numbers of permits to harvest the desired number of antlerless deer. In some areas, the number of permits required to achieve harvest objectives often exceeds the number of muzzleloader hunters.
The weather in late October is more favorable to many hunters and holding this season prior to the rifle season means that deer will have been less pressured, won’t have adjusted their behavior to avoid hunters, and will be less concentrated in areas hunters don’t have access to. These factors will likely result in higher antlerless permit fill rates, meaning the state should be able to achieve antlerless harvest objectives with, in most cases, fewer permits. Additionally, many firearm hunters will be able to harvest an antlerless deer for meat before the buck-only rifle season, which might make it a little easier for them to let that 4-pointer walk on opening weekend.
A Novice Season
New, first-time hunters age 16 or older are now able to participate in the youth season for one year. Technically, this is a separate season, but it’s held at the same time as youth season. Additionally, novice hunters must also follow all the same rules as youth hunters during youth season. Novice hunters must have passed a hunter safety course and must have purchased their first hunting license in the past 12 months and be 16 years or older. This new opportunity will help recruit new hunters from non-hunting families, which is important for slowing the overall decline in hunter numbers. (See Deer Hunting, for regulations and more information on novice season.)
Youth Season is Earlier
Youth season is now two weeks earlier than it used to be. This timing provides more favorable weather conditions, more evening hunting time, and continues to give youth hunters the first opportunity to harvest deer with a gun. (See Deer Hunting, for regulations and more information on youth season.)
The annual bag limit is now four deer, of which only one can be a buck. Hunters can harvest all four of these deer during the archery season (if they purchase additional archery licenses) or the antlerless or muzzleloader seasons (if unallocated antlerless permits are available). This change will help increase the antlerless deer harvest in areas where it is most needed.
Expanded Archery Zones
The department can now identify areas that will benefit from additional archery antlerless harvest and will work with affected communities to create several of these within the next few years. Generally, these expanded archery zones will be developed areas around major cities and towns where deer can’t be effectively managed with firearm hunting.
The department’s wildlife biologists will spend several years monitoring how these changes affect the deer harvest, buck age structure, and hunter satisfaction. If the results aren’t what was expected, or if the objectives of the 2020–2030 Big Game Management Plan are not being met, the Department and Fish and Wildlife Board will make the necessary changes at that time. In the long run, hunting regulations will continue to evolve to meet new challenges and to provide new hunting opportunities.