(reprinted with permission)
Vermont Column, Maine Sportsman
“Deer Hunting by the Numbers”
While I never fully stop thinking about chasing deer, March is often the low point for it. I’m tapping trees, chasing snowshoe hare, and trying to tease up a last lake trout or a feed of yellow perch before the ice breaks up. I’m not much for shed hunting because I’m not sure how much stress it puts on the deer as they face some of their most challenging days at the end of the winter and the same goes for the moose, when the ticks can take them down in April. Busy with the many pursuits that our winter wonderland offers, I think that maybe the deer hunting fever I’ve suffered from for 40 years has broken. Then the states start to put out the deer season numbers from last year and I get infected again, sucked right back in to thinking about where November will find me.
Vermont Hunter Numbers
I love to track deer. To do that, I need big chunks of country. In VT, the areas with lowest deer densities are where I go. I’ve decided to trade a chance at a buck for a day alone wandering around. I’m certainly not alone. I think a lot of factors lead to this desire to spend time cruising through the woods and it has become appealing for a lot of people. The last couple years has seen an uptick in folks wanting to track deer and I can’t blame them. First of all, it is fun and secondly, the pandemic only magnified this appeal by giving more people time to get out. It can be the adventure of a lifetime. I think that folks who hunt now generally hunt harder than most people did 30 years ago; in our camp 80% of the guys who showed up only hunted on opening weekend, now I’d say that 80% of us hunt most of the season. All of this certainly causes more crowding on less land that is available to hunt. I’d like to blame everyone else for my not shooting a deer, but that is just a strong dose of sour grapes. I just need to work harder!
Putting numbers to this helps. The math is admittedly not perfect because I had to grab numbers from different years for different states. No less a figure than Mark Twain wrote that, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In 2021, VT had 81793 hunters who went out on 8638 square miles of deer habitat, putting 9.5 hunters per square mile out there. By comparison, based on 2018 numbers, ME and NH had about 7 hunters per square mile, with longer rifle seasons. When I asked our deer biologist, Nick Fortin, about this, he replied, “We have a short season precisely because we have a lot of hunters, and with the small size of our state, it is only logical that avid hunters would expand their opportunities by hunting nearby states. I would also note that we kill more bucks per square mile than NH or ME, despite the fact that we had/have an antler restriction. We have higher deer densities on average, and our hunters are pretty good.” He also noted that only 500-700 hunters used to kill two bucks a year, a number that would statistically be relatively insignificant in terms of pressure moving to neighboring states like MA, ME, NH and NY.
There Are Deer in Vermont
In Vermont, the estimated deer population before the hunting seasons was 133,000 deer. Like most places, those deer are not spread evenly across the landscape. The Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys and the associated farm country hold most of the deer. Deer densities are generally lower up the spine of the Green Mountains and into the Cold Hollow Mountains in the center of the state, as well as in the tri-county area known as the Northeast Kingdom where there is room to roam, but higher winter severity.
Hunters took 15,858 deer, of which 9,133 were bucks. You can see where deer density and hunting pressure overlap in the map, where each dot represents a deer that was shot. While there isn’t age data available yet, from 2018-2020 the average age distribution of bucks was 32% over 3 years old and 11% were 4+ years old. In 2021 there were 96 deer taken that weighed 200+ pounds. This has typically been in the 120-160 range the past 4-5 years. Anecdotally, the heaviest buck I have heard about being shot in VT was 254 pounds, taken in Essex County in the northeastern part of the state, but I haven’t confirmed that. I wish I had found that track to follow!
I’ll spend the next few weeks with a fever, hashing over the data, trying to make sense of it all, teasing out when and where I should put in my tracking time, hoping snow flies before it has even left the dark corners of my yard. Then I’ll throw the numbers in a heap, schedule as much time off as I can for November and plan to head for the woods in search of an adventure!
My first VT buck from years ago. Four points, 119 pounds. What a beast!