Deer hunting in Ridgefield’s sights
How has a dozen years of hunting in Ridgefield’s open spaces shaped the influence deer have on local 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 said. “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 the hunt should be re-examined this spring.
“It’s something that has been discussed in the past, but there’s been no vote as to whether to actually proceed,” said First Selectmen Rudy Marconi.
The question came up at the selectmen’s March 20 meeting and it was agreed to hold a hearing, possibly in June. A date has not yet been set.
Also of interest are the “deer counts” that are done periodically by the state, using flyovers during times of snow. 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
The Conservation Commission’s Open Space Understory Study found the forest areas it looked at in good health.
“There appears to be more ferns, skunk cabbage, and bare spots on the forest floor and fewer bushes,” 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,” said Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle.
“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.” 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 plan to look again at the question of whether to continue the town’s controlled deer hunt.
Ridgefield Conservation Commission (RCC) members 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 in their separate report. “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?”