Deer hunting can get folks’ passions up, and supporters and opponents of the town’s “controlled hunt” will get a chance to debate, declaim, argue, and shout at a public hearing in the fall.

This year’s deer hunt is expected to proceed, but the opinions expressed at the hearing could set the stage for a town meeting to call off or reaffirm support for deer hunting on town lands in the 2019 season.

That was the consensus the selectmen reached April 18 after their second discussion of deer hunting in a month.

“We are going to start off with a public hearing. It could it go to the town meeting, a call for a vote. But we want to get people’s input first,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Monday, April 23.

The Board of Selectmen will decide after the hearing whether to call a town meeting.

“We’ll basically take it from there, depending on the input we receive,” Marconi said.

The discussion Wednesday night confirmed the selectmen’s previously expressed sense that it might be time to let townspeople revisit the deer hunting issue that they last voted on in 2006.

“It’s been 12 years,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

“If people want to continue the deer hunting, we’ll continue the deer hunting,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said.

The selectmen had received a report from the deer committee at their previous meeting, on April 4, proposing to have the town’s “controlled hunt” on 15 town properties in the hunting season that starts next fall. The selectmen had sent the report on to the Conservation Commission, seeking a recommendation.

Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Coyle told the selectmen he was trying to get the deer committee on the commission’s May 9 agenda.

Original vote

The selectmen recalled the town meeting that had packed the Veterans Park auditorium in 2006 and approved deer hunting.

“It was a huge turnout,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

The vote 12 years ago had been 531 for hunting, 194 against.

“There were four reasons,” Marconi recalled.

Townspeople voted to allow deer hunting because of concern about Lyme disease, car accidents involving deer, the cost to homeowners of replacing landscaping materials eaten by deer, and damage to the “understory” in woodlands and open spaces.

Kozlark said that since the selectmen’s April 4 discussion of the deer hunt, she’d done her own informal, non-scientific survey via email blast. The responses suggested issues like Lyme disease and car accidents remain the leading concerns.

“Most of the people who responded were focused on health and safety,” Kozlark said.

One couple had expressed reservations about the hunt, she said, but the other 24 responses had been supportive.

“All the feedback I was getting, they were fine with how the deer hunt was being handled,” Kozlark said.

Manners, long a vocal opponent to the town hunt, said she’s heard from people uncomfortable with the hunt.

“I hear from a totally different group than Maureen,” she said.

“There are people in town, apart from me, who don’t like seeing deer hunted at bait stations.”

The town’s “controlled hunt” is only a portion of the deer hunting that goes on in town.

Deer numbers

At the April 4 selectmen’s meeting, Stefano Zandri of the deer committee, which manages the town hunt, had reported that the 2017 hunt took 60 deer — nine bucks and 51 does.

The state’s tracking of all deer taken by hunting last year in Ridgefield — in the controlled hunt on town lands, but also on state land and on private properties — was 180 deer taken, Zandri had said.

The size of town’s deer herd was part of the April 18 meeting.

“How many deer are there?” said Coyle. “How many should there be?”

“What is a stable population?” Marconi asked.

He added that coming up with solid numbers had proven problematic, since “flyovers” done to count deer involved renting planes or helicopters, and were expensive.

“I know there are some experiments with drones now,” he added.

Between the selectmen’s two discussions there wasn’t even agreement that, after 12 years of hunting, the deer population has gone down. Kozlark said there were plenty at her house, but Manners complained that she no longer sees the numbers of deer she used to.

“I’d like to know how many foxes are in town,” said Manners, saying she now sees them more frequently than deer.

Manners said she hoped to have information — deer counts, a report on the condition of the understory — before the public reconsiders the issue.

Coyle said the Conservation Commission was working to determine whether the years of hunting had helped with the problem of deer consuming all the understory in the woodlands.

As part of its natural resources inventory done 10 years ago, the commission had counted seedlings on a number of small plots in town open spaces.

“We want to go back to six or eight test plots and compare the number of seedlings back then, and now,” Coyle said.

Though the different selectmen reported hearing a wide range of opinions on the hunt, they all agreed it made sense to have at least a public hearing where townspeople could once again express their views on town-sanctioned deer hunting on open space lands.