The deer, the forest, and the hunt: Conservationists disagree on study results

A dozen years of deer hunting in Ridgefield open spaces: How has that shaped the influence deer — lovely but hungry, browsing and munching on leafy greens — have had on Ridgefield’s forests? 
With a reconsideration of the deer hunting question informally penciled in on the town’s agenda, the Conservation Commission undertook a study of changes in the forest understory. The report was deemed inconclusive — although not everyone agrees.
“...There seems to be no strong rationale to either continue or stop the hunt based on this study alone,” concluded the Conservation Commission’s 24-page Open Space Understory Study.
A different perspective was offered in an eight-page minority report that two commission members, Daniel Levine and Eric Beckenstein, sent to the Board of Selectmen.
“We believe that the town must seriously reconsider the merits of the hunt,” they wrote. “Perhaps a resting period is needed? Perhaps the hunt should only occur every two-three years now (as opposed to every single year).”
The town’s “controlled deer hunt” on open space lands has been going on since 2006, undertaken each fall and winter on town open spaces, under the auspices of the Deer Management Implementation Committee (DMIC).
“Our hunt this year went well,” deer management committee Chairman Stefano Zandri told The Press in a March 15 email. “We harvested 53 deer — 10 bucks and 43 doe.”
The deer committee and its “controlled hunt” on town lands — mostly open spaces, but also other parcels, like the golf course in winter — isn’t the only hunting in town, of course. Deer are also hunted in large state tracts, like the Great Swamp and Bennett’s Pond, and on private lands.
“We consistently account for a third of the deer taken in Ridgefield,” Zandri said.
Reconsider the hunt?
The selectmen began talking last fall about a reconsideration of the town deer hunt. While approving plans for the 2018-19 hunt on 13 town properties, the selectmen seemed to reach a consensus that the hunt should be re-examined this spring.
Nothing has been set up, however. 
“That’s a discussion for the board,” First Selectmen Rudy Marconi told The Press. “It’s something that has been discussed in the past, but there’s been no vote as to whether to actually proceed.”
“You never know. We’ll have a discussion and decide what to do,” Marconi said. “It’s possible there’ll be another public hearing. It’s possible there’ll be another town meeting, as well, for people to vote on it —which is what we did initially.
“It is not just the understory report that we will be taking into consideration,” Marconi said. 
Also of interest are the “deer counts” that are done periodically by the state, using flyovers during times of snowcover. The counts arrive at educated estimates of the number of deer per square mile.
The State Wildlife Division “conducted a recent flyover in zone 11, including Ridgefield,” Zanrdi said. “Their findings were 40 deer per square mile.”
Hunting, roadkill
The state also provided the deer committee with numbers going back to 1996 — a decade before the town’s controlled hunt started — showing the number of deer killed in Rigefield by hunting, by road accidents, or for other reasons.
Numbers from the early years show an almost equal number of deer deaths from hunting and car accidents: 

  • 1996: roadkill 124, other 25, hunting 123;

  • 1997: roadkill 107, other 26, hunting 116;

  • 1998: roadkill 122; other 50, hunting 92;

In the more recent years, deer killed from hunting are the same or increased, but those killed in road accidents or due to other reasons are down dramatically from the early years.

  • 2016: roadkill 9, other 2, hunting 196;

  • 2017: roadkill 14, other 0, hunting 183;

  • 2018: roadkill 3, other 0, hunting 152.

The number of deer taken by hunting peaked in the third and fourth years of the town hunt. Figures for those years are:

  • 2008: roadkill 30, other 5, hunting 330;

  • 2009: roadkill 61, other 19, hunting 336.

Hunting “has been successful in culling the deer, we know that, it’s safe to make that statement,” Marconi said.
“Without the hunting, and rate at which deer multiply, we can find ourselves back in the situation we were a number of years ago relative to the number of deer-car accidents, and Lyme disease, the forest understory and the vegetation and landscaping that is deteriorating on an annual basis,” Marconi said.
“If you stop deer hunting now, do you stop it for a year and do it ever other year? Those are the kinds of conversations that have to take place,” Marconi said. “So, we’ll see.”
It was while reviewing and approving the specifics of this year’s hunt that the selectmen said it might make sense to revisit the deer hunting question this spring.
While car accidents involving deer and the spread of tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, are surely large factors in any debate over the hunt, damage to plantings — both in the forested open spaces and in landscaped yards — remains a significant consideration.
Given past discussions, it seems likely the selectmen will want to do something this spring.
“At least a public hearing,” Marconi said. “Maybe in April. Once the Board of Finance is done with the budgets ... it might not be a bad idea to address the issue.”

Understory study
The Conservation Commission’s Open Space Understory Study found the forest areas it looked at in good health.
“Based on the results of this limited study, the condition of tree seedlings in Ridgefield open space appears good. There appears to be more ferns, skunk cabbage, and bare spots on the forest floor and fewer bushes, but this observation was not quantified,” the report said.
The study’s final report also didn’t take a position on the deer hunt effect on the forest. 
“It is kind of inconclusive,” Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle told The Press.
“There are a variety of factors that could affect the efficacy of the deer hunt,” he said. “We focused on only one parameter — whether the condition of open space understory warranted continuation or cessation of the hunt.”
Coyle described the commission’s study, which was done at several locations in two open space tracts — Bennett’s Pond, which has been pretty heavily hunted, and Hemlock Hills, which has seen relatively little deer hunting.
Commission members’ observations of the forest health, and their counts of various species found in selected 20-foot by 20-foot locations in each of two open space tracts, were compared with findings for the same specific locations in a 2010 natural resources inventory the commission had done.
“This past summer, we re-examined understory conditions at a number of locations in Hemlock Hills and Bennett’s Pond – ones that we studied as part of the Natural Resources Inventory in 2010. As noted, the report was limited in scope due to a lack of resources necessary to conduct a more comprehensive study,” Coyle said. “The study concluded there was no strong rationale to either continue or stop the hunt based on this study of one factor alone.”
He added that the commission supports the selectmen’s intention to look again at the question of whether to continue the town’s controlled deer hunt.
“...As the hunt has been conducted for 13 years now,” Coyle said, “it would seem appropriate to conduct a public hearing to re-evaluate the need or desire to continue, modify, or eliminate the hunt going forward.”
Minority report
The two Conservation Commission who issued what has been described as a “minority report” on the forest study were careful to tell the selectmen they were writing “as private citizens” and did not speak for the commission.
But they addressed the selectmen from the perspective of Ridgefield Conservation Commission (RCC) members — who are troubled by an annual hunt that closes open spaces to public use each winter.
“...More and more Ridgefield residents have expressed dissatisfaction with the closure of open spaces and trails to allow hunting,” they wrote. “Ridgefield residents walk, hike and explore Ridgefield trails and open spaces throughout all seasons, including winter.
“For this reason, RCC takes its role in closing open space and trails very seriously and has begun to ask more questions of deer committee: What is the current estimated deer population? How many deer are killed on a specific open space? What method of hunting is taking place? Can the length of the hunt be shortened? Can we rotate which open spaces are to be closed and still reduce population? Are the majority of deer killed at the start of the hunt? 
“... Because open space land is under RCC jurisdiction, we want to make certain that if we are to close open space (and trails) to allow hunting — effectively banning the public from enjoying open space and trails for a period of time — then there must be continued assessment...
“In the absence of demonstrating a current need to continue this measure, Ridgefield should suspend the hunt in 2019 until an aerial survey is performed, establishing current deer numbers and relative locations.”
They, too, support having the entire hunting question reopened to town debate.
“It seems (to us) that the town may have ‘met the original goals’ of the hunt recommendation,” they wrote. “We think that this should be carefully looked at and re-examined.”