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Officials scramble in wake of Needham hunting incident

Posted by Daniel Adams  November 29, 2011 05:02 PM

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Town officials scrambled last week to determine who owned land near the Ridge Hill Reservation where a resident reported her daughter encountered a hunter in a tree platform just a short walk from her backyard.

Now, the town may consider a ban on bow hunting after discovering that the incident occurred on conservation land where residents frequently walk.

Clara Germani, whose Pine Street property abuts the reservation, said her 14-year-old daughter was walking their dog down a path behind their home last month when she was startled by a man wearing camouflage and a black ski mask sitting in a tree. While she wasn’t sure the man was armed, Germani’s daughter said he claimed he was hunting deer for a Lyme disease study being conducted by the state. Town and state officials were unaware of any such program.

Needham Police removed the platform, described by Germani as a chair attached to a branch with fabric straps that had metal footholds leading up to it. Police Chief Philip Droney said officers were unable to locate the man, but are now investigating the incident with the help of state Environmental Police.

Officials quickly realized it was unclear who owned the land and what hunting rules applied there. They hurried to organize a series of calls and meetings with town engineers, with police — who thought the land was owned by the Army of Corps of Engineers — and with members of the Conservation Commission, one of whom was adamant that the area was conservation land owned by the town.

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick initially said the area where the platform was discovered was federally owned Army Corps land, where hunting would be allowed. However, after reviewing town maps and further meetings with officials, Fitzpatrick said last week that the land in question was almost certainly town conservation land, where hunting is prohibited.

The uncertainty surrounding the area, where town, federal and private property intersect, was unsettling to residents like Germani.

‘‘I didn’t know people could hunt in a suburban area like this,’’ Germani said.

Germani said she is not trying to end hunting, but wants residents to be safe.

‘‘I just hope that people are not as ignorant as I was about this, and that they protect themselves and their children from accidental crossfire.’’

Shirley Converse, who has lived on Pine Street for 50 years, says hunting in the area is nothing new, but it still makes her uncomfortable.

‘‘If those bullets go astray they could do a tremendous amount of damage,’’ Converse said. ‘‘I think it’s dangerous for kids and animals in the neighborhood. ... It’s just not right. They should do it way off in the woods somewhere.’’

But truly remote wooded areas are increasingly difficult to find in Massachusetts. MassWildlife Assistant Director for Wildlife Tom O’Shea estimates that 60 percent of the state’s land area is closed to hunting and nearly half of all municipalities have restrictions on hunting. The result? More hunting on small patches of privately or federally owned land abutting suburban homes.

‘‘With the increasing deer population in suburban areas, hunters are finding more opportunities closer to home,’’ O’Shea said. ‘‘They don’t have to travel as far as they may have decades ago.’’

O’Shea said that landowners must post their property if they don’t want hunters to use it. Regardless of posting, hunters are prohibited by state law from hunting within 500 feet of a ‘‘dwelling in use’’ or within 150 feet of a paved road.

‘‘It’s all about balancing,’’ O’Shea said. ‘‘There are no really natural predators that control deer populations, particularly in suburban areas. There really are two main sources of mortality, and those are vehicle collisions and hunting. We obviously want to reduce vehicle collisions with deer.’’

Germani, who has lived in Needham for 14 years, posted ‘‘no hunting’’ signs on her property’s boundaries after her daughter’s encounter with the man on Nov. 11.

O’Shea said bow hunting is an increasingly popular technique, representing a larger and larger proportion of the overall deer killed each season.

‘‘It is an effective tool, and we’ve shown that over time we’ve been able to reduce deer densities in suburban areas,’’ O’Shea said. ‘‘The safety record for bow hunting is excellent... I think it’s a compatible use in suburbia.’’

Needham prohibits discharging a firearm on town land but not bow-hunting. Fitzpatrick said the town has not granted anyone permission to hunt with a bow on its land, but was unsure if such hunters needed the town’s permission, meaning bow hunters may be in a gray area.

Hunting of any kind is banned on the Ridge Hill Reservation, according to Needham Conservation Commission rules provided to the Globe.

It is legal to use firearms on private property and federal land within Needham’s borders, though hunters using them must abide by the state laws that prohibit hunting too close to homes and define hunting seasons. The shotgun season for deer started Monday.

According to a map provided by town officials, some of the land behind the houses on the east side of Pine Street is federally owned, while houses on the West side, including Germani’s, abut a green-shaded conservation area.

A second map provided by Fitzpatrick shows Army Corps easements in the area, another complicating factor. Easements do not confer ownership of land to the federal government, but allow the Army Corps to use land owned by others for the purposes of flood control. An easement marker was tacked to the tree where the hunter’s platform was discovered.

Fitzpatrick said that she would take several measures in response to the incident, including asking the Board of Selectman to consider a measure that explicitly bans bow hunting on town property.

Fitzpatrick also said the town would consider amending its bylaws so hunters on conservation land could be ticketed. Currently, criminal charges are the only mechanism for punishing hunting and other violations of conservation land rules.

She also said she will talk with town officials about posting signage on Ridge Hill and other town-owned property to mark property lines and inform hunters of town regulations.

O’Shea said that while hunters are generally responsible for knowing and following local hunting rules, it would helpful for towns to clearly post their property.

‘‘Even the best-intentioned person might not know’’ local laws, O’Shea said.

While Needham considers banning bow hunting, the nearby towns of Dover and Medfield have each moved in the opposite direction.

Both towns now allow tightly regulated bow hunting in an effort to control large deer populations and the attendant problem of Lyme disease.

Fitzpatrick said the town would listen to the concerns of residents about hunting, but cited the need for residents and hunters to coexist.

Both Fitzpatrick and Droney stressed that this was the only such incident in recent years and that residents shouldn’t be alarmed.

‘‘It’s something that doesn’t happen frequently,’’ Droney said, though he explained there had been similar incidents about a decade ago.

‘‘The maps, some of them really conflict with each other,’’ said Droney. ‘‘The main thing is getting the boundaries straightened out.’’

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com

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