By Lynn McNamara
Several years ago I made a decision that came as a surprise to many of my friends and family. I was going to start hunting deer here in Vermont. As a lifelong animal lover and considered the family “tree hugger,” this desire to hunt seemed to some to be at odds with my dedication to conservation.
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, it was very rare to see a deer and even when I first moved to Vermont over 20 years ago, a deer in the yard was a special sight. But in the last two decades, with few predators, warmer winters, and declining numbers of hunters, the deer population has rapidly expanded in many parts of Vermont — resulting in negative impacts to our landscape.
I have had the privilege to steward lands that have been conserved by The Nature Conservancy for the past 13 years, and in that time I have witnessed our forests change. The forests now appear more open and park-like, if they are not infested with invasive plants such as honeysuckle, buckthorn and barberry. They are composed of widely spaced mature trees, with few saplings or seedlings growing in the understory. While not always apparent at first glance, what is missing is the next generation of trees and the complexity and diversity of species that used to be typical of our Northern hardwood forests. This altered landscape is primarily due to the overpopulation of deer that are over-browsing a vital ecological stage that promotes healthy forests.
I’ve always felt a strong connection to nature and the lands around me, a land ethic, which has grown over time. Therefore, I have devoted my personal and professional life to nurturing the natural communities that sustain us. I do this through actions both big and small, like picking up roadside trash, planting flowers and shrubs that provide food for pollinators and wildlife, and through my work restoring wetland and forest systems that have been impacted by past human use. Witnessing the change in our forests inspired me to take even further action and that led to my becoming a hunter.
After listening to local foresters, ecologists and wildlife biologists, I learned that deer hunters provide a valuable service to our lands by restoring a system of checks on a population that has been disrupted by the absence of predators, and a changing climate.
Just as I hit the roads to clean up litter on Green Up Day in the spring, I retreat to the woods with my crossbow during hunting season and if I am successful, as I was earlier this season, I have a freezer full of sustainable and local meat to feed my family through the winter.
Lynn McNamara is the director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.