The Massachusetts shotgun-hunting season for deer opened Dec. 2 and will be followed by the primitive-firearm (muzzleloader) season in the middle of this month, both of which close on Dec. 31.

During that time, and assuming the 2013 harvest is similar to 2012, some 12,000 bucks and does will be taken. If, on average, the dressed weight of each deer is 130 pounds, the total for the season is 780 tons of venison for the table. While a significant majority of the citizens of the state do not participate in the hunt, and some are opposed to the very idea, this harvest is the only thing that remotely controls the burgeoning deer herd that inhabits our cities and towns.

Consider the following from a biodiversity study by Thomas P. Rooney Ph.D., of Wright State University, Ohio:

n There are an estimated 30 million deer of all types in the United States.

n An average deer will eat one-half ton of vegetation each year, and the entire U.S. deer population will consume the equivalent of 15 million metric tons of vegetation, which is greater than the combined weight of all 11 aircraft carriers (each weighs approximately 103,000 tons) in the U.S. Navy.

n In 2008, more than 1 million deer collided with cars and motorcycles resulting in the deaths of 150 people, injuries to 29,000 others, plus an estimated $1.1 billion in vehicle damage.

n A recent study of 13 northeastern states that revealed damage to agricultural crops, nurseries and landscaping by deer amounted to $248 million dollars.

The overabundance of deer in Massachusetts is changing the ecology of our forests in very detrimental ways. White-tailed deer are highly selective in what they consume, some of their favorite plants are the most valuable trees in the forest. Oak and maple of all species, ash, hickory and yellow poplar are consumed voraciously as seedlings and young saplings, while species such as beech, birch and black cherry are left untouched. Combine this with shade from the mature overstory, and the future of our forest holdings is bleak.

A few years ago, the MDC realized the Quabbin Reservation was becoming a deer refuge as all forms of hunting were banned within its borders. State officials determined there were no young trees left to replenish the existing ones and the future of the watershed would be threatened if they did not control the deer herd. The MDC opened the reservation to deer hunting by special permit and annually surveyed the herd to ensure it was getting under control. It also aggressively planted acorns throughout the property, in particular where hemlock groves infested with woolly adelgid were removed.

More recently, the town of Weston, after a protracted public process, voted to allow bow hunting for deer on public land within the town. This happened after a survey showed Weston had 20 to 30 deer per square mile where the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) estimated that eight deer per square mile would be culturally and biologically sustainable. Not only had homeowners' yards and public and private forests been decimated, but the incidence of Lyme disease had increased significantly. It is highly likely that these efforts at deer control will take many years to achieve their goals unless they open up more private land in the town for bow hunting.

Unfortunately, there are few good management practices in forests held by private owners, municipal conservation commissions, and other conservation organizations, with a few exceptions.

Most of the forests in Massachusetts are made up of second-growth trees that took over when farms were abandoned and people either moved to urban population centers or migrated west, prior to and at the turn of the last century. These second-growth trees range in age from 60 to 90 years. In the near future, they will begin to die off, or be decimated by Mother Nature in the form of ice storms, fire, insect infestations or high-wind events. The question is: What will replace them?

It is likely it will not look like the forests we know today because the understory of desirable trees is in desperate shape. A hike through most forests in this area shows park-like vistas with clear sight lines through stands of mature hardwoods or white pine and other softwoods. There is very little to sustain wildlife in this environment and most of it will be found on the edges of the forest where sunlight penetrates and small trees and bushes can flourish. It is why you find deer eating your ornamental plantings if you live next to a conservation area and why your yard attracts rabbits, groundhogs and all sorts of small birds. They have shelter and food, unlike what is left in the adjacent forest.

There are things that can and should be done if we are to preserve and protect the forests we know today for future generations.

First, it is imperative that people recognize there is a problem, otherwise nothing will be done. Woodlot owners, conservation commissions, and other conservation organizations need to look at their forests and determine their future health, not on the basis of existing trees, but what the understory looks like. Contact a professional forester to evaluate your forest holding and get his or her advice on how to improve it.

Second, like any living ecosystem, forests need to be managed for sustainability, including harvesting as necessary, to insure multistaged growth. There is real value in timber and the income can be used to pay taxes by the private owner and for public uses in those forests held by cities and towns.

Finally, work with the Mass. Division of Fish and Wildlife to determine the best method to control and manage the local deer population. Deer hunting, and particularly bow hunting in Massachusetts, has proven to be extremely safe. People are far more likely to have a collision with a deer than to ever be harmed by a deer hunter.

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To learn more about the impact of deer on forests, go to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/ or search for the USDA publication Forest Science Review -- The Forest Nobody Knows. Both are excellent studies on deer problems and their management.

Send comments to jcampanini@lowellsun.com.

About the author

Jim Coull lives in Littleton and is a licensed hunter. He served on the board of directors of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), which is the largest holder of conservation easements (1.3 million acres) in forests throughout the six New England states and another 13,000 acres in Georgia. NEFF is headquartered in Littleton.