Compromise to reduce number of deer killed in Ridgefield

Fewer deer would be killed in the town hunt under a compromise plan reducing the number of properties hunted in any year from 15 or so to five, and limiting the number of hunters to two per site, Deer Committee chairman Stefano Zandri told the selectmen.

“If there’s going to be less properties hunted, less hunters, you’re not going to take as many deer,” Zandri said.

The compromise plan, agreed upon and approved by the Deer Committee and the Conservation Commission, was presented to the Board of Selectmen Wednesday night, July 17.

The selectmen did not vote on the change in policy, but accepted it by consensus. First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the board will have a vote sometime before the fall, when presented by the Deer Committee and Conservation Commission with a list of five town open space properties — rather than 12 or 15 — to be hunted in the coming 2019-20 season.

While agreeing on the compromise, the selectmen expressed widely differing views of the hunt.

“You know me, I’d prefer no hunting,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners. “...The evidence is there. We’re not seeing the accidents. We’re not seeing the destruction of the understory ... There are fewer deer in Ridgefield. That was the goal. And now the goal is to maintain.”

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark was worried a reduction in hunting under the compromise would bring back the conditions that led to a 2006 town meeting to vote in favor of hunting on town open spaces — a hunt which began the next year and has continued annually for the last 12 years.

“We don’t want to take a step backward,” said Kozlark. “...This was one of the largest town meetings I’ve ever attended, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of deer hunting.”

The “plan for the future of the deer hunt in Ridgefield” agreement is outlined in a letter to the selectmen co-signed by Deer Committee head Stefano Zandri and Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle.

Three-year rotation

Key elements of the plan are:

A list of 15 open space properties for possible hunting will be selected and approved by the Conservation Commission, as in the past.

But “no more than five of those properties would be hunted each year on a rotating basis” — meaning that “a given property would be hunted only every three years,” the letter says.

“Each year the Deer Committee would present a list of five properties from the agreed upon list of 15 properties to the Board of Selectmen for concurrence by the Conservation Commission, similar to what is done at present.”

The number of hunters taking part will be determined and approved by the Deer Committee. But “at no time will any property be hunted with more than two hunters per parcel.”

Each year the controlled deer hunt on Ridgefield open space “would not begin until roughly mid-October” and would run until the “the end of January” — assuming those times fall within the broader legal hunting season as set by the state each year.

“The Conservation Commission and Deer Committee would continue working together on proper signage, neighbor notification, annual reporting, and other items to help assure a safe and controlled hunt.”

The revised program of five-parcel town hunts would begin in the coming 2019-20 hunting season.

The plan only applies to the “controlled hunt” on town open spaces that dates back to 2007. Hunting on private property, or in state lands such a Great Swamp flood control area or the Bennett’s Pond State Park, would continue unaffected, under the state’s hunting season and other regulations.

The town’s controlled hunt accounts for about 25% of the deer taken in town each year, according to Zandri.

June hearing

The compromise was worked out by the Deer Committee and Conservation Commission after a June 5 public hearing where the deer hunt was debated — a hearing that grew from the Board of Selectmen’s decision, after months of on and off discussions, to reconsider the 12-year-old hunt.

At the hearing Conservation Commission members raised the idea of pausing the controlled hunt for two or three years — an idea the Deer Committee did not seem happy with, although Zandri said the committee would pursue whatever course the selectmen determined the town should take.

There was wide agreement the deer population in town is declining since the controlled hunt began in 2007. A recent count by the state “reported approximately 40 deer per square mile,” Marconi said. “When we started we were closer to 70.”

“The herd densities of 70 to 80 down to 40 — a significant reduction,” Coyle said then.

“When we started this the goal was 20 deer per square mile. If you shut the hunt down, the herd will start to climb again,” Zandri had said.

Selectwoman Manners, who’d advocated a rethinking of the town hunt, told the hearing there were clearly fewer deer around.

“I used to have deer come through my yard every day,” Manners said, “and I see two or three a season now.”