Weston selectmen backed the concept Monday night of using bow-hunters to cull the town's deer population, but want to see detailed regulations before they give final approval.
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to support the Conservation Commission's proposal to allow bow hunting for deer on town-owned conservation land. The next step is to see a detailed plan.
“We could still shoot it down,” said selectmen chairman Michael Harrity in an interview. “We have not approved it because we want to understand the details that will ensure safety upon residents.”
Harrity called the board’s support of the plan “reluctant,” but said it appeared to be the only solution to controlling the town’s burgeoning deer population.
The vote followed a heated public meeting where residents argued over whether the plan was inhumane and dangerous, sometimes booing each other and sometimes shouting at selectmen to let residents speak.
Opponents of the plan said that the town’s stance from the very beginning has been pro-hunting, and that other options were not fully considered.
“I’ve been very disturbed by the way this process has gone on,” said Weston resident Diane Anderson, who said she had attended the public meetings the town has held leading up to Monday’s vote. “I think we need to get really educated on this before we make the decision to go to this drastic measure. Many of us feel this is very, very cruel.”
Conservation Administrator Michele Grzenda has said that the deer population in Weston has exploded in recent years, and that the deer have damaged the town’s conservation land, carry deer ticks which can cause Lyme disease, and cause car accidents by wandering into roads.
Weston should have about six to eight deer per square mile, she said. Instead, it has about 25.
The bow-hunting plan would allow trained archers to hunt on town-owned conservation land during a regulated hunting season. The commission has yet to come up with regulations concerning where and when the archers would be allowed to hunt.
Hunting in Weston is currently only allowed on private property with the permission of the landowner. State regulations prohibit the shooting of guns or arrows within 150 of a roadway or 500 feet of a building. Deer hunting season for archers runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 31, according to a spokesperson for the State Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. There is no hunting anywhere in the state on Sundays.
Hunters in Massachusetts must be licensed annually through the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Prospective hunters in Weston would also need to pass a proficiency test and get permission from the town to hunt there, said Grzenda.
Before the vote, selectmen acknowledged that the strong feelings on both sides of the issue would make pleasing everyone impossible.
“Undoubtedly, this is going to leave people unhappy whatever we decide,” said selectman Edward Coburn.
Officials said that the Commission had considered alternatives to bow hunting, such as capturing the deer and injecting them with contraceptives, but found them impractical or ineffective.
Several residents objected, arguing that officials could shoot the deer with contraceptive darts, and pointed to the work of animal reproduction specialist Jay Kirkpatrick, who advocates the use of contraceptives.
Kirkpatrick, Director of the nonprofit Science and Conservation Center in Billings Montana, said in an interview that he has used darts to control horse populations for 24 years, and that darting urban deer is far more effective than hunting them. Kirkpatrick has studied animal contraception for 40 years, he said, and treats more than 85 species in 400 zoos, from Australia to Israel.
“The problem is reproduction,” he said. “Suppose by some magical way, you went in and you reduced the population by 80 percent. Remove them, shoot them. You haven’t solved a problem, because the ones that are remaining behind are still going to breed.”
There is an up front cost to contraceptives, he said. Guns cost between $900 and $3,000. The Science and Conservation Center offers training in Montana for $200 per person, he said – though they waive that fee in cases of hardship. But once employees are trained, the Center sells the vaccine for $24 per dose, and darts cost $2.15.
Grzenda said in an interview that the town simply does not have the personnel to dedicate to locating and darting deer.
“I’m a one-person staff,” she said. “It’s not like we have staff available to spend countless hours darting a free-ranging deer herd and tagging them.”
It is illegal to relocate wild animals in Massachusetts, so moving the deer somewhere else is not an option.
Officials acknowledged that some deer will suffer, but said that hunting has gone on for thousands of years.
“Hunting is a fairly deep and ancient relationship between people and deer. This is not a new idea. It’s been done here for a long time,” said commission member Brian Donahue. “You are going to cause some pain and suffering to animals. That is inevitable. That is simply going to happen. That is simply part of the world.”
Linda Huebner, Deputy Director of the Advocacy Department at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that some studies have shown that about half of all deer shot with arrows are only wounded, not killed. The Weston Conservation Commission report cites a 10% wound rate. Grzenda said she had seen studies with higher wound rates, but said that Weston's would likely be much lower, because Weston will only allow highly skilled archers to hunt on town land.
At Monday’s meeting, some people said they were concerned that allowing hunting would put Weston’s human residents in danger. According to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there has never been an incident in the state where a bow-hunter injured a non-hunter, but residents said that knowing there were hunters in the trees was enough to make them feel unsafe.
“I think it’s going to change the whole character of this community,” said Linda Gillooly. “It’s going to change the whole feeling of going out into the woods and enjoying it. People are going to be afraid for their existence.”
Selectman Douglas Gillespie said that he was in favor of restrictions that would limit the days that hunters would be allowed in the woods. He also said that the Conservation Commission should consider closing conservation land during hunting times. Not all of Weston’s conservation land will be open for hunting.
“There is a sense of discomfort when you’re out walking around in the woods knowing that there’s hunters there,” he said. “That’s human nature.”
Harrity said in an interview that he would like the Commission to consider restrictions on the areas where hunting would be allowed, the number of licenses that will be permitted, the test that archers would have to pass to be allowed to hunt in town, and the possibility of closing land while it is used for hunting.
Conservation Administrator Michele Grzenda said that the commission will take all of those suggestions under advisement when writing regulations.
Grzenda said that she hopes to vote on regulations at the July 10 meeting of the Conservation Commission. She said she hopes to bring the regulations before the Board of Selectmen by July 16. Both meetings will be public.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org