Deer hunting debate heads to June 5 hearing

Deer hunting, which appears to have dramatically reduced car-deer road accidents in Ridgefield, will be up for debate by townspeople on June 5.
The number of deer killed by hunters in Ridgefield was at 123 in 1996, peaked at 336 in 2009, and had fallen back down to 153 in 2018, according to state figures presented to the selectmen by the town deer committee.
Over those years the count of deer roadkill from accidents with cars declined from about 150 a year early on — 149 deer in 1996, 133 in 1997, 172 in 1998, 157 in 1999, 148 in 2000 — to fewer than 20 a year recently, with 13 deer roadkills in 2015, 11 in 2016 14 in 2017, three in 2018, the committee said.
“Deer auto accidents are down to almost zero,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said May 8 after the Deer Management Implementation Committee made its report to the selectmen.
“The road accidents are three,” said Selectman Steve Zemo. “People can have gardens again.”
The “controlled hunt” run by the deer committee on 14 town properties was created following a vote approving it at a crowded and raucous town meeting in 2006. The town’s controlled hunt is responsible for roughly a third of the deer taken by hunting each year in Ridgefield, as reflected in the state figures, according to deer committee Chairman Stefano Zandri. The remainder are taken by hunters on private land or state properties, such as Great Swamp or Bennett’s Pond.
At the end of a long discussion, the selectmen agreed to schedule a June 5 public hearing for people to debate continuation of the town deer hunt — something they’ve been talking about since last fall.
A majority of the Board of Selectmen took the declining car accident numbers as an indication deer hunting has been useful and a success, but Selectwoman Barbara Manners — who has long voiced an animal lover’s opposition to the town deer hunt — continues to harbor concerns.
“Generally, the people overwhelmingly support this,” Marconi said. “They probably want to maintain it as it is today.”
“That’s a good thing,” said Zandri, chairman of the deer committee.
“Not all of us agree,” said Manners.
“But some of us do,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.
Using open spaces
Manners did not criticize the hunt on broad moral grounds, limiting her arguments against it to practical matters. “There are people in town who feel they’re not able to use open space as much as they’d like to,” she said.
And Manners did have some praise for the deer committee and its hunters.
“I really appreciate the safety with which the hunt is done,” she said.
“We’ve got great guys,” said Zandri.
Marconi said that while there were figures on the declining number of deer-car accidents, and the Conservation Commission has studied changes in the forest understory to understand the deer poopulation’s affect on trees and plants, the other major concern that had led to creation of the town hunt — deer as hosts for ticks and the spread Lyme disease — had become more difficult to quantify. The state program tracking Lyme cases had been eliminated in budget cutting a few years back, he said.
Lost days
The deer committee’s controlled hunt is limited to 14 town parcels — mostly open spaces, but also including the golf course after it is closed for the season. And the hunt isn’t allowed to take place any time school is out — weekends, holidays, vacations.
One of the issues the deer committee raised at the May 8 selectmen’s meeting is that of 109 days in the hunting season, the town hunt took place on only 57 days.
The hunters particularly lament all the days lost in November.
“That’s the rut period, and normally a good time for hunting,” committee member Steve Scala said.
He showed a calender demonstrating how many days in the hunting season were lost due to the town hunt’s strict rules.
“And yet, you’ve substantially reduced the size of the herd,” said Manners.
Figures the committee presented to the selectmen for the take from its controlled hunt on town lands showed 53 deer shot this year in the 2018-19 season, and 51 deer in 2017-18 — down substantially from higher totals in the early years, such as 131 deer taken in 2009-10 and 113 in 2008-09.
Deer density
Another question is how many deer are in Ridgefield’s woods?
Zandri said the state’s efforts to document deer showed little recent decline in deer density.
“They did a flyover. They’re still coming up with 42 deer per square mile,” Zandri said.
A goal of the town’s had been to get the deer down to about 20 deer per square mile.
“What is the reality of getting it down to 20?” Marconi asked.
“It won’t happen,” Zandri replied.
Manners asked how the state arrives at its “corrected estimate” for deer density.
“They flyover when there’s snow on the ground, count the number of deer they see, and multiply by two,” Zandri replied.
It’s widely believed that many deer escape notice in the count, and doubling the number is presumed to make up for deer there weren’t seen in the flyover.
Marconi asked about the prospects for lowering the 42 deer per square mile density.
“We can get it lower, if we introduce more spots and grow the hunt,” Zandri said.
Four options were proposed by the deer committee for the selectmen’s consideration:
Continue the hunt as it is.
Increase the size of the hunt.
Eliminate Friday hunting (to allow more use of open space for non-hunting purposes).
Increase the number of parcels hunted from 14 to 20, but hunt only seven in a given year, rotating them (which might maintain the current deer take while allowing more use of different open spaces by hikers, etc. since only seven sites would be used for hunting in a given year).
Preferred option?
Marconi asked if the selectmen wanted to advance a preferred option in the information they present to open the public hearing.
“Do we want to bring one of these options to public hearing — this is our recommendation?” he asked.
Selectwoman Kozlark suggested that if the hearing’s goal is to get people’s opinions, the selectmen shouldn’t give theirs at the start.
Manners said that leaving the hunt as it is would not maintain the status quo, but would mean a continuing decline in deer numbers.
“The hunt has been successful in reducing the herd,” she said. “Leaving the hunt as it is is going to continue to reduce the herd.”
“Can we say we’re happy with a 152 kill-rate?” asked Selectman Bob Hebert. “...Can we put a cap on it, like 150 deer?”
“You could on town land,” said Zandri. The selectmen could pick a number and say once that many deer are taken, the town hunt is over.
“We’re flexible,” he told the selectmen. “We’re here to do what you want.”
But while the town’s controlled hunt on open spaces could be capped, Zandri did not see a way for the selectmen to control the number of deer taken by hunters on private land, or state properties, like the Great Swamp and Bennett’s Pond — which, between them, account for two-thirds of the deer hunted in town.
He also said the amount of private land open to hunting in town is dwindling.
“When I was growing up, everyone would let you hunt their backyard,” Zandri said.
Minimum area?
Selectwoman Kozlark asked if there were minimum land areas required for hunting.
It varies by the weapons used.
Zandri said there were no distance regulations for archery hunting. The use of shotguns is banned within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling. And for hunting with a rifle, “you have to have 10 acres or more,” he said.
While specific numbers might be difficult to pinpoint, Selectman Zemo said the committee’s hunt did appear to have succeeded in reducing the deer herd in town.
“There are less. There are less females. There are less babies. There are less to shoot,” Zemo told the deer committee. “You’ve reduced the breeding herd.”