A New Need for an Old Tradition: Hunters help Vermont’s forests

Two hunters with orange vests walking along a trail in the fall. Hunting can help forests.

Maple sugar maker Ed Smith is intimately acquainted with the 150-plus protected acres surrounding his home in Rockingham. He has been walking the hilly property ever since he was a 12-year-old boy. Now 62, Ed helps manage the forests and fields, including promoting trees that provide wildlife with food, such as apples, acorns, and beechnuts. “I can tell you where the deer are going to be,” he said. “It depends on where they’re feeding in a particular year.” One reason Ed knows the property so well is hunting. Hunting “gets in your blood and you just do it,” he said. These days, he often hunts with his daughter Holly. Hunting has helped him build and deepen his lifelong connection to the land.

One out of eight Vermonters hunts. The majority hunt deer, but many seek out turkey, black bear, ruffed grouse, and small game animals. Hunting is as much a part of Vermont’s rural heritage as milk or maple syrup. It is also a traditional way of experiencing nature. “For some, hunting is a powerful way of connecting with a place and interacting with wildlife,” said Dan Kilborn, who works as a forester at VLT and is a hunter himself.

Hunters like Ed and Dan care about wildlife and have an interest in protecting the habitat that animals rely on—whether that be forests, lakes, or wetlands—and hunters have been critical to the success of the conservation movement in this country. Aldo Leopold, often regarded as the father of wildlife ecology, inspired generations with his writings about conservation and the natural world. “Leopold was himself a hunter,” said Dan. “Hunting was an important part of his overall relationship with wildlife and the land, and really formed the basis for much of his conservation work.”

Hunters go afield for many reasons—a connection to place, to spend time with family and friends, solitude, adventure, observation, to find food, to connect with a landscape and the wildlife who live there, and to maintain an ecological balance.

It’s for all these reasons that a marked decrease in hunting in Vermont, and nationally, is a worrying trend. Various factors, ranging from a decline in outdoor pursuits to suburbanization of parts of Vermont, have brought about a drop in the number of hunting licenses sold. This concerns VLT staff, ecologists, and state officials.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter is concerned about the slow but steady decline of annual hunting licenses sold in Vermont: over 100,000 in the 1990s to around 66,000 today. “We are worried about the growing disconnect from nature,” he said. “That connection is very important to people’s physical health, mental health, and spiritual health.”

He’s not alone in that belief. A large body of scientific research indicates that being close to nature is an important part of both childhood development and adult well-being. In Vermont, hunting has long been a way of making that connection.

Centuries ago, wolves and mountain lions roamed the region, helping keep deer numbers in balance. These predators are now absent and humans are the primary hunters. “With hunter numbers declining, there is no longer a good check on the deer population,” said VLT staff biologist Liz Thompson. She says Vermont’s deer herd now numbers about 150,000 and is growing. If the deer population exceeds what the woods can support, too many seedlings and saplings are eaten, and the forest struggles to regenerate itself—something that makes the forest more vulnerable to damaging invasive species. The changed habitat also affects species such as song birds that rely on understory vegetation as a place to build their nests, and rare plants like showy lady’s slipper, a favorite food for deer.

Big buck in the snowy woods

VLT forester Pieter van Loon has been managing a VLT property in West Brattleboro for 11 years. “There are 12 tree species on the property, a number of which were reproducing well in 2007; now, none of those trees have viable seedlings,” Pieter reported after visiting the land this fall. “White ash, hemlock, white pine, sugar maple, and red oak were gone. The beech, a species deer normally avoid, have been heavily browsed and the deer are now eating the invasive glossy buckthorn. Having deer in the landscape is important both ecologically and culturally. We just need to find ways to match deer numbers to ecosystem health.”

Owners of conserved land report varying experiences with deer over-browsing. Ed Smith sees hunting as a management tool for deer. “We need hunting desperately around here,” he said. “The deer come into the maples and browse them right off.” Much further north, in Enosburg Falls, sugar maker and owner of VLT-conserved land, Steve Perley, reports that hunting is still a thriving activity in his area. Perhaps as a result, his maple woods are healthy and regenerating young trees. Steve allows hunting by permission on his land. Friends and neighbors took two deer in 2018, and “five or six” the previous year.

Much of the land VLT has conserved is privately owned and access is at the owner’s discretion. But many allow hunting, particularly for friends and neighbors. In addition, nearly 170,000 conserved acres that are privately owned have public recreational access in their VLT conservation easements—access that usually includes hunting. Coupled with land that VLT owns, this provides for diverse hunting opportunities.

Encouraging hunting is an important part of conserving land, Dan said, because it is a traditional Vermont bond to the landscape. “It’s hard to care about what you don’t know,” he said. “Hunting is a way of knowing — it can take the care of the land to a deeper level.”

This article appeared in our Spring 2019 membership newsletter. Story written by Tom Slayton. Photos of hunters and buck courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife.