If 911 calls and accidents are any indication, then Westport and Little Compton just may have a deer problem. Since January, Westport police have tallied 57 vehicle vs. deer collisions, and 41 …
If 911 calls and accidents are any indication, then Westport and Little Compton just may have a deer problem.
Since January, Westport police have tallied 57 vehicle vs. deer collisions, and 41 calls reporting deer on the side of the road. Over the border in Little Compton, police say more than 16 percent of car accidents this year have involved a deer.
Not that farmers and property owners across the region didn’t already know that the white-tailed deer population here is growing out of control. This past week or so, three separate meetings were held on the issue — one, by a local group called “Our Herd” which drew 50 Westport and Dartmouth residents, and two others before the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust and town council.
Residents are flummoxed — deer are hurting their property, impacting their bottom line and quality of life, and they want answers.
“It has always been an issue,” said Dee Levanti, who farms Ivory Silo Farm in Westport with partner Bill Braun. “Usually, for the most part, temporary electric deer fencing has been pretty effective. But over the past five years, the fencing has become less and less effective as the deer just push through it and enter the fields.”
After last year’s drought, which caused much of the deer’s natural food sources to dry up, Levanti said the problem became especially untenable, with deer even eating from their greenhouses.
“We were losing thousands of dollars of crops,” she said. “And the pressure is increasing on our farm — they’re not only getting through fencing, but they’re eating crops that they’ve never eaten before, like pepper plants and tomatoes.”
According to the Rhode Island DEM, a game survey from 1941 tallies the statewide white-tailed deer population at 662. Today, the Ocean State herd is estimated at 18,000. In Massachusetts, that total sits around 95,000, nearly double what it was 30 years ago.
Tricks like scarecrows, double layer fencing, parked vehicles, and regular field walks are just not cutting it anymore — not for Ivory Silo Farm, and not for anyone.
Levanti acts as the voice of farmers in Our Herd, an organization of concerned residents, landowners, conservationists, hunters and farmers recently created to address the problem. She is accompanied by Gina Purtell of Mass Audubon and green artist Amy Thurber in leading the charge.
“Some of the losses reported by individual farmers include five acres of squash, half an acre of potatoes, two acres of dahlias, hundreds of lettuce plants, [and] more than 10,000 pepper plants,” recounted Levanti of Our Herd’s most recent meeting. “Deer can demolish plantings overnight, and they are habitual, meaning they will be coming back for more once they have discovered something they like.”
The story seems to be the same in Little Compton, where farmers are also lookin for answers and believe population control is necessary.
Craig Hibbad, who owns Otter Brook Farm and leases farmland from the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust (LCACT), was recently was approved for a deer damage control permit by RIDEM and, subsequently, the LCACT. The permit allows him to hunt deer from April to November, almost seven months longer than the week-long season that typically occurs in December.
Hibbad’s leased land on Brownell Road grows corn silage, a forage crop often used as feed for dairy and cattle farms like Otter Brook. To curb the deer population and attempt to protect his crop, Hibbad culls deer with a shotgun.
“We support his efforts,” said Bill Richmond, the chairman of the LCACT, at a meeting last week. “We allow hunting on [conserved] parcels already, and we think we should support local farming.”
The Ocean State seems to agree.
“Hunting is a vital tool for managing deer,” published RIDEM in its guide to deer hunting. “It has been proven to be the most cost-effective, efficient, and successful method of controlling deer populations. Wildlife managers can influence population growth by encouraging the taking of female deer. Thirty-five to forty percent of does must be taken every year just for the population to remain stable.”
In Massachusetts, MassWildlife similarly uses regulated hunting to stabilize the overgrown population. With their Hunters Share the Harvest Program, deer hunters are encouraged to donate venison to residents facing food insecurity.
Some nearby area towns like Bristol have already taken their own steps — there, town officials opened four town-owned conservation areas to hunters to help cull the herd. But what additional strategies could be employed by the towns of Westport and Little Compton is unknown.
“I don’t know if the [deer] population down here in Little Compton warrants DEM enacting [town-wide emergency regulations],” said Little Compton’s Solicitor Tony DeSisto. “I think the better approach is [to] allow a property owner to obtain a permit from DEM which would allow them to control their deer population on their own property ... They need to make a showing to the director that the deer on their property is damaging the property. So I’m not so sure the town has a role in this.”
To the east, Westport officials may not have been officially clued in just yet.
“For now, we are looking to make connections between landowners, farmers, and qualified hunters.” said Levanti, who explained that Our Herd has not yet engaged the Town of Westport but has plans to.
“We’re looking to raise awareness that we have a responsibility as predators and as citizens who caused this problem in the first place.”