Deer hunt: Time for a plan, maybe a pause?

The hunters and the conservationists have agreed to work together on a plan for the town’s controlled deer hunt, though where that effort will end isn’t clear. The hunters want the culling of deer to continue. And the conservationists are talking about a pause, with hunting resumed in a few years when the population increases.

“It seems as if people need to get in a room and decide what’s a goal,” Selectman Steve Zemo said at the end of a public hearing on the deer hunt Wednesday, June 5. “We’re getting lot of different opinions, but I don’t think we’re getting a clear direction.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi sought a working group with members of the Deer Management Implementation Committee, (DMIC) which runs the town’ hunt, and the Conservation Commission, which has allowed the hunt on selected open spaces for 12 years, but has misgivings about closing woodlands to the public. Would the two work together?

“On my part, absolutely,” said Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Coyle.

“I agree,” said deer committee chairman Stefano Zandri.

Conservation Commissioner Eric Beckenstein suggested emulating towns that oversee hunting with “a two-to-five-year plan with a beginning, a middle and a five-year goal.”

Distinct camps

The June 5 public hearing revealed two outlooks.

“I rarely see deer any more,” said Chuck Jennes of Madeline Drive. “At this point in time I kind of miss them.”

Greg Kabasakalian of Washington Avenue said: “I’m not a hunter, but I do support you guys hunting.

“ If we don’t manage it, it’s going to explode,” he said of the deer population. “The predators will be coming out of the woods to get that baby fawn.”

Twenty of about 40 people spoke at the hearing, including four selectmen, four deer committee members, and three Conservation Commission members.

The Conservation Commission advocated pausing the town’s 12-years-old “controlled hunt.” This would mean no hunting on town-owned open spaces for a time — one, two, three years, maybe — but legal hunting would continue on private land in town and state property like Great Swamp or Bennett’s Pond.

“Is it possible to do a hunt every two or three years?” Marconi asked.

“If that’s what you want us to do, that’s what we’ll do,” Zandri said.

But deer committee members worried a pause would erode the organization of the hunt, which is done by approved hunters under committee oversight.

“Right now it runs itself,” Zandri said. “We’ve got a great group of guys.”

Yes, fewer deer

Both sides agreed the deer population is down.

Since the hunt began in 2007, Marconi said, the state’s deer count declined.

“A count done a year ago reported approximately 40 deer per square mile,” Marconi said. “When we started we were closer to 70.”

“Right now the state says we have 1,100, 1,200 deer in our town,” said Zandri. “...If we let this go away, we’ll find ourselves back where we might be at 70, we might be at 60.”

Conservation chairman Coyle said: “The herd densities of 70 to 80 down to 40 — a significant reduction.”

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

Some wouldn’t mind.

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

Manners, who has long been uncomfortable with deer hunting, complimented the committee on the hunt’s safety and efficiency.

“The purpose of the hunt was to reduce deer. It’s done that,” Manners said. “If we continue the hunt as it is, we will further reduce deer.”

“We’re seeing less deer, no question,” Zandri said.

“I think we should be looking at something like a pause for a year,” Manners said.

She also objected to baiting deer. “To me, that’s not hunting,” Manners said.

“You’re right,” Zandri agreed.

The controlled hunt isn’t sport hunting, it’s designed to reduce population. To keep numbers down, the hunt focuses on females. “Last year we took 54 deer out of the herd; 49 of them were does,” Zandri said.

Ticks, accidents

When the town hunt was started in 2007, Marconi said, it followed a town meeting of 700 people, with 520 voting for the hunt.

They had four concerns about deer: the spreading of deer ticks and Lyme disease; car accidents with deer; damage to gardens and landscaping; harm to the forest understory.

“The deer motor vehicle accidents have come down,” Marconi said.

But the state’s tracking of Lyme disease lost funding and is inactive, he said.

Private landscaping still gets eaten, but many people have put in deer fences.

A Conservation Commission study of forest understory was inconclusive.

Marconi said the deer committee had suggested four options: leave the hunt as it is; increase the hunt to further reduce deer population; eliminate hunting on Fridays, allowing more access to open spaces; increase the number of parcels hunted from 15 to 20, but hunt only seven of them in any year, allowing more use of more open spaces by the public.

“It’s probably reasonable to stop the hunt for a year or two,” said Coyle, the Conservation Commission chairman. “I was disappointed to see that wasn’t among the options.”

Closing open space

“We do have the issue of closing all those open spaces ever year — that’s a concern to our constituents,” Coyle said.

Conservation Commission member Daniel Levine said many people complain about closing open spaces for the hunt.

“Why is this space closed? Why again this year? Why? Why? Why?” Levine said.

“The recommendation in our report was to stop the hunt for two or three years,” said Coyle.

Selectman Bob Hebert focused on the decline in car accidents with deer. The numbers peaked at 172 in 1998, he said, and in the last few years they were way down — to 13, 11, 14 and most recently three.

“Those are car accidents,” Hebert said. “...It’d be nice to see it at zero.”

Coyle said the drop in accidents can’t reliably be attributed to the town hunt, which is responsible for about a third of the deer killed in town each year.

“The herd started declining before we even had a hunt,” Coyle said. “...The deer population in New England has been going down for some time.”

Levine said wildlife experts at Yale all agreed the hunt could still be an effective way to reduce deer numbers, even if paused for a few years — more deer would be killed when the hunt was resumed.

“One hundred percent said you can pause the hunt for two or three years ... You’ll take more deer,” Levine said.

“Conservation recommended that the hunt continue, but not every year — that we do it every two or three years.”

He added that he personally opposes the hunt. “That’s my thing,” he said.

Deer committee members saw problems with the pause idea.

“Suspending the hunt and starting it back up every two or three years would be quite difficult,” said Zandri.

“It seems to me we need a deer hunt management plan,” said Coyle. “...We do need to re-evaluate.”

He added, “How many towns in Fairfield County have a hunt? Six towns of 23 in Fairfield County have a hunt. What does that say?”

Public’s concerns

Members of the public raised a variety of issues.

Leah Barron of Sarah Bishop Road said she didn’t opposed the hunt, but wanted the Sarah Bishop open space excluded.

“We have 26 children living on Sarah Bishop Road,” she said.

John Elkow said his home on Spire View Road was next to one of the sites hunted from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31.

“They got six deer, and they closed that property for three and half months,” Elkow said. “It’s not efficient.”

Deer committee member Rich Szentkuti said the hunting season runs from October to January, but hunting is “prohibited about 45 percent of those days.”

“If there’s a holiday, any weekend as well, any school holiday or snow day, there’s no hunting,” said deer committee member Steve Scala.

Of 109 days in the season, he said, 53 were hunting days.

Jeff Lundberg wondered how many deer were taken in town on private or state lands —not part of the committee’s controlled hunt.

“Ridgefield has always been in the top three in the state,” said Zandri of total annual deer take. “We’re dropped down to number five or number six…

Jeff Hansen said his property on South Salem Road abutts a refuge, but seeing deer has become rare. “It’s three or four times a year now,” he said.

“Let us know how you want to handle this,” Zandri said to the selectmen.

Coyle advanced the idea a multi-year management plan for the hunt.

“If we can sit down and say, the next five years, this is where we think we should go,” he said. “...What are some metrics to see if that’s successful.