The Northeastern United States boasts a diverse habitat for whitetail deer. From vast tracts of untamed forests in northern Maine where a hunter can walk for days without seeing another human being, to densely populated suburbs in southern Connecticut with barely enough cover to hide a rabbit, the whitetail has made itself at home. Its' unparalleled ability to adapt and evolve has made it a perfect inhabitant for this region of the country. But that same ability to survive (and thrive) in New England is setting up one of the greatest challenges for the regions' deer hunters. How do we hunt this wily animal while it makes itself at home in backyards, next to highways, and in areas where hunting is at worst, dangerous, or at best, generally not accepted? It's a complicated question, with a more complicated set of answers.
Certainly most reasonable answers to this question will have to revolve around hunting. Passionate attempts to use birth control, high fences, and other non-lethal methods have failed in almost every case. Yet gun hunting is illegal in many of these suburban areas, and if it is not, it can be just plain dangerous! So bowhunting would seem to be the only hunting alternative that stands a fighting chance to be effective, but not overly intrusive or dangerous. But this is not the kind of bowhunting most of us are used to. The suburban bowhunter needs to know how to effectively hunt in conditions that, well, aren't necessarily conducive to deer hunting. This article is dedicated to exploring the good, the bad and the "ugly" when it comes to bowhunting in suburbia.
Suburban does from Massachusetts
Suburban Hunting Is Definitely NOT For Everyone
This type of bowhunting is not for everyone. Period. It takes a certain type of hunter to be effective in suburbia. So how do you know if it is "for you?" If you long for the quiet solitude of a big hardwood ridge, or you prefer edge hunting on a few hundred acres of farmland, you are not a suburban bowhunter. On the other hand, if you can sit in a treestand within hearing distance of a busy road, and you don't mind the drone of a nearby lawn mower, you might be a suburban bowhunter. The bottom line here is that suburban deer hunting is different than what you experience when hunting the big woods. It is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, better nor worse. It's just different. It comes with its' own set of challenges, and its' own unique advantages.
Let's explore the plusses and minuses to see if you think you have what it takes to be a suburban bowhunter.
The "Eye" Is Upon Us
Just like the great "eye" in the movie series "The Lord Of The Rings", we find ourselves under more significant scrutiny when we hunt in suburbia. This is by far the biggest challenge to this type of hunting. The eyes of non-hunters and anti-hunters are literally always upon us. They see you coming and going, and they see every aspect of your behavior as hunters. And while most suburban hunting can be done in pieces of woods big enough to "hide you", in some cases people on neighboring properties may even be able to see you in your treestands! And as uncomfortable as that sounds, it may make you feel even more uncomfortable because you can see and hear them! You'll be subjected to the sound of children playing in nearby yards, lawn mowers running somewhere up the road, and lot's of traffic noise - not sounds we are used to hearing on stand. The suburban bowhunter has to learn to shut those sounds out, and concentrate on the task at hand, just like the whitetail has learned to filter those extraneous noises. And in more extreme cases, the suburban deer hunter needs to be able to handle the verbal abuse from anti's on neighboring properties. Eventually, no matter how well you are concealed when you are hunting, the neighbors will see you coming and going. And if they don't like hunting, they probably are going to make sure you know they don't like hunting!
Statistically bowhunting is the safest form of deer hunting with respect to accidents or injuries involving a third party (i.e. not to the hunter him/herself). And many states require completion of bowhunting safety courses prior to obtaining a license (for instance, the state of Connecticut has recently instituted a mandatory course for all bowhunters). However, we can not escape the fact that hunting in a suburban setting does increase the possibility of an accident occurring that involves a non-hunter. It stands to reason that if we are hunting in highly populated areas, we are more likely to encounter more non-hunters traveling through our hunting areas than we would if we were hunting "the big woods." The good news however is that bowhunting by its' very nature reduces the risk of an accidental shooting. Why? Bowhunters must get very close to their quarry. This drastically reduces the likelihood of making a mistake in target identification. And because arrows have such a short range, so-called "line-of-fire" accidents are much less likely than with guns. So even though suburban hunters find themselves in closer proximity to yards, streets and houses than may be "comfortable," paying attention to legal limits with respect to proximity and distance will generally make accidents highly unlikely. But let's be honest here - the suburban bowhunter needs to pay special attention to this risk, for everyone's sake.
Gaining Permission To Hunt
Most states require permission to hunt private property, and some (like Connecticut) require written permission from each landowner. While gaining permission to hunt any private property is generally a challenge, gaining permission to hunt small tracts of suburban land can be even more challenging. Social pressures against hunting are often much stronger in suburbia, and fears (realistic or not) of hunting-related accidents or problems are certainly much higher as well. But just like gaining permission to hunt farmland, this is primarily a relationship-building and trust issue. If you can represent yourself well, prove your trustworthiness, and hunt in a safe and ethical manner, you have a good chance to attain (and retain) permission. After all, in many cases deer are considered pests in suburban neighborhoods. They eat expensive landscaping, trample gardens, knock over bird feeders, and in some cases, cause diseases like Lyme's Disease. The key is often finding an "unhappy landowner" who needs you as much as you need them. This sort of relationship, once attained, can be ideal for both parties. But remember, it's a delicate balance - hard to get, easy to lose!
Ted Godfrey – Muzzleloader Buck from Nantucket Island (MA)
Recovering Wounded Deer
Recovering wounded deer is among the most significant of suburban challenges. Bow-killed deer rarely drop in their tracks (at least, not when I shoot them!). So if you are hunting a small chunk of private land, chances are very good that the deer you shoot will die on another piece of property. Getting permission to get that animal can quickly turn into a nightmare. Just imagine arrowing your "buck of a lifetime" only to see it wander off and die on an adjacent property. Then imagine knocking on the door to be greeted by an irate anti-hunter who refuses to let you on the property to recover the deer. At best, you need to contact a game warden and enlist their help to recover the deer. And even if you do eventually recover the deer, pressure from neighbors may result in the loss of your hunting permission in that area. Let's face it, most non-hunters don't want to see a deer run in their yard and die. And certainly, no anti-hunter would EVER cooperate in the recovery of a wounded deer. Even when the deer dies on the property you hunt, you face challenges. Often it becomes necessary to extract wounded deer after dark, so as not to attract any undue attention or offend those around you who don't like to see "dead things." Exiting the property quietly and without disturbing the property owner, or neighbors, is in everyone's best interest.
If Not Us, Then Who?
If bowhunting is not going to be the primary method of controlling the deer population in suburbia, then what will be? You need not look too hard to understand failed attempts in the recent past to eliminate deer hunting in particular areas. From towns in eastern Massachusetts, southern New York, southern Connecticut and even islands such as Nantucket, deer are thriving. And towns are struggling to deal with the explosive population growth. Some areas are holding special deer hunts (like the Nantucket hunt being held in February this year) while others, like the town of Wilton, Connecticut, are struggling with their options. While their ideal deer density is 10-20 per square mile, they are faced with densities of 40-60 deer per square mile! And Lyme's disease has grown to epidemic proportions, according to a recently published town report.
Non-hunting methods of population control, including deer "birth control", high fences, and hiring sharpshooters, have proven costly and vastly ineffective in most cases where they have been utilized. Ultimately, the "free labor" provided by deer hunters appears to be the best answer, both from a cost and an effectiveness perspective. For once, hunters may actually be viewed as the solution, not the problem…
Records Don't Lie
Don't think for a moment that suburban deer hunting is limited to shooting does and small bucks. Quite the opposite! While your opportunity to take a mature doe will certainly be good, so will your chances of encountering a big mature buck. Lack of hunting pressure allows these animals to get great age, and as we all know age equals rack size! The NBBC records include many giant archery bucks - several of Boone & Crockett size - that have been harvested in Fairfield County Connecticut and Westchester County New York - both of which are in close proximity to New York City!
Here are just a few examples. Fairfield County Connecticut has produced more than 125 entries to the Northeast Big Buck Club record book, with the vast majority taken by bowhunters in densely populated areas. Ten of those bucks score 160" or better, and more than two dozen score better than 150"! Westchester and Suffolk counties in New York are well known for their dense deer and human population, yet some of the biggest archery bucks in all of New York have come from these counties. In fact, the NBBC has record two archery bucks from this area that gross over 170". And in Massachusetts, in 2004 a 210" 16-Point non-typical was killed by a car near Boston! So the bottom line here is that these suburbs, islands and densely populated areas are also home to some monstrous bucks. After all, records don't lie!
Ted Reutter – Archery Buck from Fairfield County CT
Seeing Deer - Almost Guaranteed!
Suburban areas are creating some unique hunting opportunities for those deer hunters who can adapt to this type of archery hunting experience. After all, many suburban "zones" have virtually unlimited doe permits, allowing for many more harvest opportunities, and lot more venison in the freezer. Deer populations can be astronomical (40 deer per square mile is not uncommon) providing for many more encounters, and eventually more chances to harvest deer. And certainly there is a great advantage to being able to slip into or out of your treestand with a 1 minute walk! Certainly your odds of seeing multiple deer, and getting quality shot opportunities, is greatly improved when deer densities are high, and huntable pockets of woods are small. On top of that, many of these areas have legalized baiting, which really begins to tip the odds in the hunters favor.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Where this challenge will all end is anybody's guess. Over the next few years we are likely to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of suburban bowhunting. Personally, I believe bowhunters are in an unprecedented position to become the solution to the growing suburban deer burden. Deer/car collisions are rising, Lyme's Disease rates are rising, vegetation destruction in confined areas (such as islands) is dooming future new growth, and a variety of other problems are only the beginning of the challenges we will face. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently reported that annual deer/car fatalities are twice what they were ten years ago. And there is evidence that the public is becoming increasingly less tolerant of growing wildlife populations, according to a new survey of the nation's wildlife professionals. As the populations of species such as bear and deer continue to grow, and contact with people becomes more frequent, wildlife professionals say they fear that the public is beginning to view wildlife as pests and not with the awe and respect they deserve. According to a survey of state fish and wildlife agencies conducted by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA), 75.7 percent of the states reported they fear their public is becoming less tolerant of wildlife overpopulation issues.
So it stands to reason that suburban bowhunting is not just an opportunity for a hunter to fill his/her freezer with venison - it is a necessity to stem the pending collision between the deer population and the human population. If you are a hunter, you might consider suburban hunting as an obligation to provide a necessary management tool to help resolve this issue. And if you decide that suburban hunting is just "not for you", you might consider being a little more supportive of those among us who do take on the challenge. In any case, we all need to do our best to be part of the solution!