Mass Audubon White-Tailed Deer Management Plan FAQs

Why is Mass Audubon permitting hunting at Moose Hill, Ipswich River, and Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuaries?

The excessively large number of deer on some of our properties is severely impacting plants, ground-nesting birds such as Wood Thrush and Ruffed Grouse, and other wildlife. Massachusetts forests can sustainably host fewer than 20 deer per square mile. Field observations suggest that there are more than 100 deer per square mile at Moose Hill, more than 50 deer per square mile at Ipswich River, and more than 40 deer per square mile on Nantucket. At this density, the ecological impacts are very serious, and include:

  • Thinning of shrubs and groundcover, removing plants necessary for insects and nesting birds. Several bird species that nest in the lower reaches of forests are declining in Massachusetts.
  • Reduced diversity of native plants and shrubs. Deer prefer native species, leaving behind only a few that are resistant to browse, such as Sweet Pepperbush, Witch Hazel, and certain ferns and enabling the spread of invasive plants. A less-diverse forest is more vulnerable to stresses such as climate change.
  • Loss of tree seedlings and saplings that will become the next generation of canopy trees. Without seedling and sapling trees, large trees that are periodically lost to age and storms will not be replaced, thereby slowly diminishing the entire forest.

We investigated various options for addressing this problem and concluded that a limited archery hunting program is the only feasible approach at this time. 

Deer are a natural part of the landscape. Why do you say there are too many deer?

White-tailed Deer populations were historically kept in check by large predators such as mountain lions and wolves. With the loss of large predators from New England, deer populations have grown unchecked. Coyotes will kill older deer and fawns but not nearly enough to keep population numbers down.

When will hunting occur?

Archery is the only form of hunting permitted at Moose Hill and Ipswich River. All forms of hunting will be permitted at Sesachacha Heathlands in accordance with all applicable state regulations. The 2018 archery season for eastern Massachusetts (zones 10-14), is October 1–December 31; shotgun season is November 26–December 8; primitive firearms season is December 10–December 31. Within that season, hunting is allowed from ½ hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset. By state law, hunting is not permitted on Sundays.

How can you allow hunting on a wildlife sanctuary?

We take very seriously our obligation to care for land in a way that maintains thriving and sustainable habitats for a full variety of native species. Deer browse is severely reducing habitat for native plants, birds, and other animal species on some of our properties.

Do other conservation groups in Massachusetts permit hunting?

Yes. Several other conservation groups permit hunting on some of their properties. The list includes The Trustees, Wildlands Trust, Sudbury Valley Trustees, Essex County Greenbelt Association, New England Forestry Foundation, Mount Grace Land Trust, Berkshire Natural Resources Trust, Opacum Land Trust, and all of the major conservation land owners on Nantucket.

What other alternatives did you look into?

We reviewed published scientific research, spoke with land managers in public and private organizations and subsequently evaluated numerous alternatives for reducing deer populations. We have concluded that a limited and carefully controlled hunting program is the only practical, feasible, and effective option.

→ Contraceptives: Use of contraceptives for wildlife management is currently not permitted in Massachusetts. It is important to note this approach does not reduce the number of deer in the near term but only slows population growth with potential longer term impact on total population.

→ Fencing: Erecting and maintaining fencing over these sprawling properties—Ipswich River and Moose Hill are both nearly 2,000 acres and Sesachacha Heathlands is nearly 900—crisscrossed by trails, would be financially exorbitant and essentially infeasible in practical terms. We would need to drive deer off the property, continually monitor and repair miles of fencing, and maintain gates at every trailhead. Fencing would interfere with movement of other animals and would only drive the deer off of the sanctuary onto adjacent forested, agricultural, and residential lands, intensifying the damage there.

→ Sharpshooting: Culling deer by sharpshooters is currently not permitted in Massachusetts.

Will hunting really reduce deer populations and bring back birds and other wildlife?

A carefully managed hunting program initiated at Quabbin Reservoir watershed lands in 1991 reduced the population to the target range in 5 years. We will work together with partners, over several years, to bring deer density at specific sanctuaries to a sustainable level. We will also monitor plants, birds, and other animals to gauge the response of the forest.

Why archery hunting? Isn’t it inhumane?

We are adopting an approach that has been applied at our Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon and on town lands in Andover. Maintaining an archery-only program is the most straightforward way to extend the program to Ipswich River. Each of the invited hunters has passed a proficiency test to prove their ability to accurately place a lethal shot.

How many deer will be killed?

To reduce deer density from current levels, we have set a goal of removing 20-25 deer per year for several years from Moose Hill and Ipswich River. Actual annual numbers will vary based on a range of factors.

Will hunting reduce exposure to Lyme disease?

Reducing Lyme disease incidence is not a primary goal of this program. While some studies suggest that reducing deer density contributes to reduced tick density and lower Lyme incidence, other studies are contradictory. Our motivation is to reduce damage to woody and herbaceous plants caused by deer browse.

Won’t hunting be dangerous for other sanctuary visitors?

Safety of our visitors is always a primary concern, and there will be no hunting near Nature Centers or heavily used program areas and trails when the sanctuaries are open to the public. At Moose Hill and Ipswich River, the program will involve 8-15 archery hunters at each site, all of whom are licensed, have passed background checks, and are known to Mass Audubon. They will be allowed to hunt only in carefully designated areas of each sanctuary. We have established these hunting zones based on required set-backs from roads and buildings, and our own set-backs from trails. Most hunting will occur from tree stands, and the location of every tree stand is pre-approved. Arrows released from a tree stand are aimed downward towards the ground and typically travel less than 30 yards from the stand. According to MassWildlife, an archery hunter has never injured a non-hunter in Massachusetts.

Sesachacha Heathlands is a much less developed property with no structures and very few trails. It lies adjacent to other large conservation areas where hunting has long been permitted. We will post signs at the major entrances to alert visitors that hunting may be taking place on the property.

Is hunting being allowed at other wildlife sanctuaries?

We are implementing this program only at Moose Hill, Ipswich River, and Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuaries. Hunting is currently not allowed at our other properties.

Is this a change in policy for Mass Audubon?

The White-tailed Deer management programs is a new initiative. Prior to 2016, we had not allowed any hunting on our properties. The Mass Audubon Board of Directors approved the use of carefully managed hunting to reduce forest damage from overabundant White-tailed Deer.

How did you select the hunters?

We are working with very experienced volunteer program coordinators who have managed similar programs on nearby properties. They have selected program participants from hunters they have worked with in the past. The number of hunters may change in the future.