Is it time to re-think the deer hunt?

The selectmen have raised the possibility of another town debate and vote about deer hunting on town land. Hunting on private or state land isn’t the town’s call.

The “controlled deer hunt” on selected properties was approved back in 2006 by a vote of 531 to 194 at one of the most well-attended, and hotly debated, town meetings in memory.

The possibility of revisiting the issue came up when members of the town deer committee came before the Board of Selectmen April 4, presenting a list of 15 town properties where they hope to continue the hunt next fall and winter.

“We’ve discussed the possibility of a town meeting,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

“Maybe it’s time we heard from the public,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

“It was an experiment,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said of the decision to have a town hunt. “I think it’s time for a reassessment.”

The selectmen eventually decided to send the list of proposed 2018-19 hunting sites to the Conservation Commission for review, and a recommendation. The vote was 4-0-1, with Manners, long opposed to the hunt, abstaining.

Stefano Zandri of the deer committee briefed the selectmen on last year’s hunt. The 2017-18 season went without complaints from neighbors or hunting opponents.

“We had a great year. We had no issues,” he said.

Zandri reported that the town hunt took a total of 60 deer — nine bucks and 51 does.

The state’s count of all deer taken by hunting last year in Ridgefield — in the controlled hunt on town open spaces, on state land such as the Great Swamp or Bennett’s Pond, and also on private properties — showed a total of 180 deer taken, Zandri said.

State officials’ tracking of the deer population in this area shows progress.

“They feel the herd in our zone — zone 11 — is now stable,” Zandri said.

Car accidents

Police Chief John Roche, a member of the deer committee, said that in the five years from 2000 to 2005, Ridgefield counted 883 vehicle accidents involving deer.

In the five years from 2013 to 2017, he said, deer-car accidents were down to 183.

“It’s a substantial reduction,” Roche said.

Given the on-and-off history of the state’s deer counts — which involve expensive flyovers, and require good snow cover — he said, the accident numbers might be the best indication of how the hunt is doing.

“The only real measurement at this moment is the deer-car accidents,” Roche said.

The town hunt involved 10 hunters last year, with most taking two or three animals but one hunter bagging 30 deer — 10 of them at the Sarah Bishop open space on the New York state line.

“What does a person do with 30 carcasses?” asked Zemo. “Is it industry, not sport?”

“One hunter taking 10 deer on one property — it sounds like you went in with an AR-15,” said Manners.

Zandri said the Sarah Bishop site had a large deer population.

“They counted 18 deer in one night, coming to the bait stations,” he said.

Conservation Commission

Manners was also skeptical that the deer committee came to the selectmen first, when they’d previously gone to the Conservation Commission for an endorsement before bringing the board a list of properties to be hunted.

The deer committee’s letter to the selectmen acknowledged the change.

“We’ve always believed that the Conservation Commission and the Deer Committee shared the same objective, to create and maintain a healthy environment for both wildlife and Ridgefield residents. With this same goal, we were always looking for any ideas and suggestions from the commission,” the letter said.

“Unfortunately, for the past several years we feel our relationship with the commission has become strained. It seems several members of the Conservation Commission are trying to derail this hunt for reasons that are not in line with the town’s objectives as outlined in the original deer committee report. Therefore, we feel it best to bring our 2017-18 results and property recommendations for 2018-19 directly to the Board of Selectmen as the agent/owner of the town's open space.”

Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Coyle later responded to a request from The Press for comment.

“The Conservation Commission serves as the agent for the town in the management and acquisition of open space,” he said. “One of our responsibilities relates to controlled hunting on town open space.

“Per Section 262-16 of the Open Space Use Ordinance, the Board of Selectmen, after written referral to and response by the Conservation Commission, may from time to time authorize a controlled hunt on town open space. Thus, whether the deer committee goes to the BOS first or the Conservation Commission first, not going before the commission was never an option,” Coyle said.

“Our role is not to decide whether or not there should be a hunt (that is up to the voters) but to identify the most appropriate properties to be allowed for hunting,” he said. “In evaluating whether or not we should approve hunting on a given open space, the commission considers a variety of factors such as use by the public, presence of trails, and condition of understory. In fact, we will be conducting a study of understory this spring.

“It is unfortunate that the deer committee feels its relationship with the commission is not as good as it used to be. Last year the deer committee came to us with a list of properties and we approved more (but somewhat different) than they requested.

“Yes, we have been asking more questions as the hunt or not-to-hunt debate could use more data to help make informed decisions. We have also made comments on how and when the public should be notified as to hunt activities.

“The Conservation Commission has taken no official stand on whether there should be a hunt. Again, that is the purview of the voters. However, after over 10 years of the hunt, it is time to bring it before the voters again. We support that re-evaluation.”

Hunting properties

Nine of the 15 properties the deer committee is seeking permission to use this year would be hunted only for the archery season, which goes from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31. They are Linden Lane, 26 acres; Keeler Court, 26 acres; Ridgebury Farms, 94 acres; Bobby’s Court, 34 acres; Colonial Heights, 19 acres; Peaceable Refuge, 16 acres; Silvermine Ridge, 14 acres; Turtle Ridge Court, 10 acres; and 20 acres between Old Trolley Road and Shadow Lake.

Six other properties would be open for archery but could also be hunted during the various gun hunting seasons: Dec. 5 to 31 for muzzleloaders and Nov. 14 to Dec. 4 for other firearms. These include Laurel Lane, 50 acres; Shadow Lake, 40 acres; Ledges Road property, 26 acres; Stonecrest, 34 acres; Sarah Bishop, 39 acres; and the town golf course.

Chief Roche said the deer committee can also assist people who want their private lands hunted.

“If a person has private property, and enough area, you can reach out to the deer committee,” he said. “We have vetted hunters.”

At the April 4 selectmen’s meeting, there was a wide-ranging discussion of the hunt.

“I acknowledge it’s controlled the herd,” Manners said. “I’m glad the understory is coming back. I’m happy the number of accidents is going down.”

“They’re not controlled at my house,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark. “I have a huge number of deer at my house.”

Manners wondered if there’d been a change in the public’s attitude.

“Obviously, because I oppose hunting, I hear from people who oppose it,” Manners said. “I also hear from people upset with me.”

Zandri characterized the decision as simple.

“If you want to maintain a stable deer herd, you need to continue to hunt,” he said.

“I used to see herds of deer years ago,” Manners said. “Now I see foxes.”