After a decade, deer hunting in town open spaces still sparks debate — and some agonizing — over the town-sanctioned effort to kill off some of fleet graceful creatures that eat leaves and plants in Ridgefield’s woods and gardens.

A “controlled hunt” for deer on 15 town properties — mostly open spaces — was approved 3-to-1 by the Board of Selectmen on Sept. 6, with Barbara Manners dissenting.

“The idea that we bait and kill these deer and we don’t know what we’re accomplishing, other than that we’re reducing the size of the herd — which might be accomplished in other ways, as well — just really disturbs me,” Manners said Tuesday, six days after the Sept. 6 vote.

“I really want to see some actual scientific studies done. I’d like us to get Yale, their forestry school — we talked about that 10 years ago and never did anything.

“I would like to see some solid data on whether what we’re doing is accomplishing the reasons that we voted to do it — the people that voted yes.”

“Recall the reasons we start this,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said, looking back to the heavily attended town meeting that established the ‘controlled hunt’ a decade ago. “Deer-car accident ratio, the amount of Lyme Disease cases in the Town of Ridgefield, the destruction of the understory in our open space, and finally the size of the financial damage caused to much of the landscaping in and around town.”

The town deer hunt was approved from Oct. 11 to Jan. 31, and the selectmen also called for a review of the policy in March 2018. Selectmen Marconi, Bob Hebert and Steve Zemo supported the hunt, with Manners opposed and Maureen Kozlark absent. They unanimously approved $2,900 for signs to post around properties being hunted.

Steph Zandri of the Deer Management Implementation Committee (DMIC) said last year’s official town hunt took 57 deer, nine bucks and 48 does.

“We had a better year,” he said — probably due to fewer acorns.

“No complaints from neighbors,” he told the selectmen — although Conservation Commission members have had a different experience.

“We’ve done this hunt efficiently,” Zandri said. “We were at 72 deer per square mile when we started this 10 year ago. The last fly-over they did, they estimated we had 42 to 45 deer per square mile.”

Questions were raised about the state’s deer-per-square-mile estimates — how recent the flyer-over were, how well they focused on Ridgefield. There was hope that future counts might be both cheaper and more accurate, using drones.

But the general decline in population wasn’t disputed..

“Our hunters are seeing less deer, there’s no question,” Zandri said.

“Predators are a factor, bobcats in particular,” he added.

But he was confident the controlled hunt is significant.

“I you were to stop this hunt, the population would double in three years,” Zandri said.

“We’ve kept the deer in check.”

Conservationists

The Deer Committee initially proposed a list of 19 properties and the Conservation Commission recommended 13 of them to the selectmen, opposing hunting on four. The commission took no position on two that aren’t open spaces — the golf course and Shadow Lake — and they were approved by the selectmen, along with the 13 open spaces.

The four properties where the Conservation Commission voted against hunting are: Kiah’s Brook, 53 acres; West Mountain Refuge, 27 acres; West Mountain McManus property, 28 acres; and Levy Park, 46 acres.

The concern about Levy Park, which has been hunted in past years, focused on wording in a deed: it was given it to the town years ago as a “wildlife refuge.”

Conservation Commission members are sympathetic to the argument that the hunt should be re-examined — and possibly limited, or paused.

“When the hunt starts, we start getting calls from upset neighbors — the gunshot thing, and their kids,” said Conservation Commissioner Daniel Levine. “Kids asking questions, and seeing things, seeing hunters pull out deer from the woods.”

Hunted open spaces are also closed to the public dawn to dusk on weekdays, even if the lands are open to kids and hikers on weekends and school holidays.

“We know that there are trails and open space frequently used by the public.,” Levine said. “...I say if we’re going to be closing them, and limiting the time people can use the open spaces, there has to be a great reason for it.”

The idea isn’t to stop the hunt, Conservation Commissioner Jack Kace said, but to study it.

“I would be afraid of stopping the hunt without a careful analysis of what the impact on open space would be,” he said.

“I want to protect our plants and animals. Deer are an animal I want to protect. I also want to protect the animals that are not around because the deer are eating up all their food. I think we shouldn’t just do something without carefully thinking about it first.”

Chairman Jim Coyle said the Conservation Commission supports a March evaluation.

“That’s what we as a commission want to do: spend the fall and winter gathering as much data as possible, so when the hunt is over in the spring, we can be in a position of working with the Board of Selectmen in assessing whether the original intent of permitting the hunt in Ridgefield is still valid.”

State numbers

The Deer Management Committee came before the selectmen in June with state wildlife biologist Howard Kilpatrick, who’d tracked the “archery harvest” in Ridgefield — which includes deer hunting on private and state lands —  from 1990 to 2016.

The archery harvest averaged 57 deer for the first 10 years, then rose steadily and peaked at 274 deer taken in 2008, the year after the town’s controlled hunt in open spaces was adopted. The totals then declining steadily to roughly 100 or 150 deer taken annually the last few years.

Kilpatrick also tracked “road kills” from motor vehicles hitting deer. Road kills rose from 95 in 1990 to 124 in 1997, then declined pretty steadily to 24 in 2015 and 11 in 2016. Ridgefield ranked number one in the state in deer-car accidents from 1990 to 2006, but is now down to number 21 in the state.

The town’s open space hunt took 171 deer — including 133 does — over the last three years, 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, Kilpatrick said. The 133 does could have been expected to produce 247 fawns, he said, suggesting that without the hunting the deer population would likely have been higher by 418 deer.

“It really is a domino effect,” Kilpatrick said.

The selectmen took it in.

“We don’t want to over produce,” Selectman Bob Hebert said, “nor do we want to over kill.”

The 15 properties where the selectmen have approved various forms of hunting were: Laurel Lane, 50 acres, recommended for archery, shotgun and muzzleloader hunting; Willow Court, 26 acres off Linden Lane, recommended for archery hunting; Old Trolley Road and Shadow Lake open space, 20 acres, recommended for archery hunting; Keeler Court open space, 26 acres, recommended for archery hunting; Ledges Road open space, 26 acres, recommended for archery, shotgun and muzzleloader hunting; Stonecrest, 34 acres, recommended for archery and shotgun hunting; Turner Hill/Ridgebury Farms, 94 acres, recommended for archery hunting; Sarah Bishop open space, 39 acres, recommended for muzzleloader hunting; Bobby’s Court open space, 34 acres, recommending for archery; Colonial Heights, 19 acres, recommended for archery; Peaceable Refuge, 16 acres, recommended for archery; Turtle Ridge,10 acres, recommended for archery hunting; Shadow Lake open space, 40 acres, for archery, shotgun and muzzleloader hunting; and the Ridgefield Golf Course, 166 acres, for archery and limited muzzleloader hunting.

Coyle wrote selectmen, outlining three conditions the Conservation Commission sought in conjunction with continuing hunt.

  • “Adequate and timely notification of abutting and nearby neighbors before the hunting season opens.”
  • “Hunting stands and related structures need to be removed immediately after the hunt is concluded.”
  • “Accurate signage” — with the conservationists agreeing to the deer committee’s proposed signs: “Park closed weekdays dawn to dusk, controlled hunt in progress”  above a listing of dates for the various hunting seasons: archery, Oct 11 to Jan. 31; shotgun, Nov. 15 to Dec. 5; and muzzleloader, Dec. 6 to Dec. 30 — with a number to call for further information.

Hunting opponent Barbara Manners agreed with the deer committee on one thing: the deer population has gone down.

“I don’t see deer any more,“ Manners said.  “I used to have five or six wandering through my property every day. Now it’s a rare occasion where a dog barks because there’s a deer coming through. How much killing do we have to do. And are there better ways of reducing the herd.”