Is deer hunting the slaughter of innocents? A time honored tradition connecting today’s suburbanites to more rugged forebears who struggled to tame the wilderness? A sensible response to the proliferation of tick-borne diseases from deer-borne ticks?
All of the above?
Ridgefielders will be invited to share their widely varying opinions on the town deer hunt at a public hearing called by the Board of Selectmen next Wednesday, June 5, at 7:30 in town hall’s lower level conference room. The hearing’s purpose is “to discuss the continuation of the town controlled deer hunt.”
“There are two sides to the debate,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the Board of Selectmen in one of maybe half a dozen discussions they’ve had on the issue in the last year.
Ridgefield has held a “controlled deer hunt” on town lands —mostly open space areas, but also the golf course — annually in the state’s fall-winter hunting season since 2006.
Hunting is also done on private land in town, and on some state tracts — in Bennett’s Pond open space, in the Great Swamp flood control area, but not in Pierrepont State Park where it was prohibited as a condition of the donation.
Participants in the town’s controlled deer hunt are bound by the same state regulations that govern other hunters— with seasons set for hunting by archery or various kinds of guns.
The Board of Selectmen began talking about having a hearing last year when they approved a list of town open spaces for hunting during the 2018-19 season.
The town meeting that authorized the start of deer hunting on town land back in 2006 drew a huge turnout, and approved hunting by a pretty wide margin. But the hunting of deer had its opponents then, and it has has them — including Selectwoman Barbara Manners, and some members of the town Conservation Commission.
“We began this because of four things,” Marconi told the selectmen, looking back on 2006.
“The incidence of deer/auto accidents — we had the highest rate in state of Connecticut — this distinction has come down dramatically.
“Ridgefield had one of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the state. Statistically, we still are running 200-300 cases a year.
“The damage to the understory in our open space properties.
“And the very costly negative impact the deer were having on residential landscaping.”
According to Stefano Zandri, chairman of the town’s Deer Management Implementation Committee (DMIC), the town’s attitude toward deer hunting seems to be changing.
“Permits are on the decline. We’re losing private land, losing tracts of land for gun hunting,” he said recently. “In Ridgefield, it’s not like it was 25, 30 years ago…”
Figures the committee presented to the selectmen showed 53 deer taken in the controlled hunt on town lands this year in the 2018-19 season, and 51 deer in 2017-18 — down from higher totals in the early years, such as 131 deer taken in 2009-10 and 113 in 2008-09.
How many deer are out there? The state counts deer in the woods by means of flyovers done in winter when there’s snow cover.
“They’re seeing a slight decline in the population — and that’s good,” Zandri told the selectmen. “We want to keep a healthy deer herd.”
But Zandri said the state’s efforts showed relatively little recent decline.
“They did a fly over. They’re still coming up with 42 deer per square mile,” he said.
There’d been talk of trying to lower the deer count to about 20 deer per square mile.
“What is the reality of getting it down to 20?” the selectmen asked
“It won’t happen,” Zandri replied.
Four options were proposed by the deer committee for the selectmen’s consideration:
Continue the hunt largely as it is;
increase the size of the hunt with a goal of getting closer to a count of 20 deer per square mile, from current state estimate of 42 deer per square mile;
Eliminate Friday hunting (to allow more use of open space for non-hunting purposes).
Increase the number of parcels hunted from 14 to 20, but hunt only seven of them each year, rotating the hunting sites. (The committee said this could maintain the current deer take but allow more use of different open spaces by hikers etc. since only seven sites would be used for hunting in any year).
When the town hunt began in 2006, the incidence of Lyme disease was a major issue driving the debate. Since then, the state has cut money for the tracking of Lyme cases, and it is difficult to reliably track whether there have been any changes.
Car accidents involving deer were also a factor in the debate over the town hunt, and there are figures to track the declinw in car-deer accidents.
Damage to plantings — both in the forested open spaces and in landscaped yards — was also a consideration in the 2006 debate.
How deer — and their changing numbers — have affected local plant life was examined in a study of the forest understory completed by the Conservation Commission.
The selectmen received a report earlier this year that deemed the study inconclusive — although not all Conservation Commission members agreed, and a minority report was also issued.
“…There seems to be no strong rationale to either continue or stop the hunt based on this study alone,” concluded the majority report on the 24-page Open Space Understory Study.
The eight-page minority report, by commission members Daniel Levine and Eric Beckenstein, was skeptical of hunting.
“We believe that the town must seriously reconsider the merits of the hunt,” the two commissioners wrote. “Perhaps a resting period is needed? Perhaps the hunt should only occur every two-three years now (as opposed to every single year).”
According to Zandri, the deer committee chairman, the controlled hunt on town lands plays a substantial role in the keep deer population down — but it’s only part of the larger landscape that includes hunting on private property and state lands.
“We consistently account for a third of the deer taken in Ridgefield,” Zandri said.
He’s upbeat about the hunt.
“Our hunt this year went well,” Zandri told The Press in a March 15 email. “We harvested 53 deer — 10 bucks and 43 doe.”
Road accidents, hunting
Proponents of the hunt point to figures that the state provided to the deer committee, going back to 1996 — a full 10 years before the town’s controlled hunt started — showing how many deer were killed in Ridgefield by road accidents, or other reasons, and by hunting.
In the early years the numbers show an almost equal number of deer killed by car accidents and hunting:
- 1996: roadkill 124, other 25, hunting 123;
- 1997: roadkill 107, other 26, hunting 116;
- 1998: roadkill 122; other 50, hunting 92;
More recently, the numbers from hunting are the same or increased, while deer killed in road accidents or due to other reasons are down dramatically from the early years.
- 2016: roadkill 9, other 2, hunting 196;
- 2017: roadkill 14, other 0, hunting 183;
- 2018: roadkill 3, other 0, hunting 152.
The number of deer taken by hunting peaked in the third and fourth years of the town hunt — at roughly twice what they are now. Figures for those years are:
- 2008: roadkill 30, other 5, hunting 330;
- 2009: roadkill 61, other 19, hunting 336.
Opposition to the hunt may be partly emotional or philosophical, but opponents also cite the fact that allowing the hunt on town open spaces reduces the number of days that those particular parcels are open to townspeople for hiking the the like.
Over the years, the selectmen have also heard from residents concerned about children seeing hunters hauling the carcasses of deer out of the woods.
And after approving the hunt on town open space lands year after year, going back to 2006, the selectmen during this year’s discussion decided to at least have a public hearing and see what sentiments are — whether there are more people opposed to hunting now than there were back in 2006.
I sentiment has changed significantly, the selectmen could decide to have another town meeting to consider whether townspeople want to continue the hunt, stop it, or change it.
“If you stop deer hunting now, do you stop it for a year and do it every other year? Those are the kinds of conversations that have to take place,” Marconi said. “So, we’ll see.