On August 22, the Board of Selectmen authorized a deer hunt on several town-owned properties to occur between September 16 and January 31, 2020.
The vote was not unanimous.
The result is unlikely to make a significant difference in Weston's deer population. In fact, Animal Control Officer Mark Harper said he is encouraging local land preserves to continue their own deer hunting programs, and asks residents who want deer removed from their properties or neighborhoods to contact him.
Only bow hunting will be allowed on the Town properties, and only by those with Town-issued permits. It will occur at Lachat Town Farm, the transfer station, Bisceglie Park (on the side of the river opposite the playground), the Fromson-Strassler property, and the Moore property. The Town plans to extensively post signs and notify residents.
Hunters will be required to provide a waiver and proof of sufficient liability insurance. They will only be permitted to hunt from tree stands at a minimum height of ten feet, and will not be allowed to "field dress" the deer they kill. They will be required to remove carcasses intact.
Some of these conditions are new. But unlike last year, the Selectmen placed no restrictions on the number of permits to be issued. They also did not limit the number of deer to be killed. First Selectman Chris Spaulding later told Weston Today "we believe the restrictions and timing will bound the number."
Last year, the Board placed a maximum of 20. But the hunt began late, and Officer Harper said only 14 were taken. Mr. Harper acknowledged that he "kept the target number down to be fair to the people who don't want hunting."
But that number was central to the objections of Selectman Stephan Grozinger, the lone nay vote.
While there has never been an incident during a Town-authorized hunt, and none of the Board disputed that Officer Harper takes adequate precautions, Mr. Grozinger has increasingly insisted on more controls, all of which have been adopted. The new requirement for proof of liability insurance reflects his concern that, while the Town appears to be immune to a claim in the event of an accident, absent liability insurance, a citizen whose person or property is injured has no meaningful recourse.
Mr. Grozinger agrees that controlling the deer population is necessary, and says he is glad hunts occur at Trout Brook, Devil's Den, and other large open spaces. His major objection is that the relatively small number of deer to be taken on Town property is likely a tiny fraction of the total deer population, and therefore not worth it. The benefits, he said, are "nominal." He disapproved of allowing a hunt in places "where people expect to be able to walk and not encounter an armed hunter in camo."
Dr. Spaulding and Selectman Samantha Nestor voted for the hunt, albeit reluctantly. Their reservations were overridden by concerns about Lyme and other tick-borne infectious diseases.
The good news about Lyme disease is that incidents in Connecticut have been on the decline over the past several years, even though the deer population may be relatively unchanged. Some public health professionals dismiss the lower number of cases and attribute them to under-reporting. That could be true, but it is speculative, and probably impossible to prove. It is equally plausible that people are simply avoiding tick bites or treating them earlier.
The bad news is that new tick-borne diseases are an even greater threat than Lyme. The worst is the Powassan virus. It is rare, but there are three confirmed cases so far this year in Connecticut. Powassan carries no telltale rash. There is no vaccine to prevent it and no medical treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that ten percent of those who contract it will die. About half of those who survive, says the CDC, will have long-term health issues.
In discussing their votes, Dr. Spaulding and Ms. Nestor cited a study, conducted over the course of thirteen years in one community, which demonstrated a correlation between reduced deer populations and declines in tick density and incidence of Lyme disease.
Ironically, that same report also supports Mr. Grozinger's position.
The community studied had implemented a drastic reduction in its deer population, a culling to about 12 deer per square mile. Currently, Weston could easily have 30 deer per square mile. Achieving results similar to those of the community studied would require wiping out hundreds of deer, more than half the population, a prospect that, we believe, few in town — and likely none of the Selectmen — would support.
Another study, conducted two years ago in Europe, explored causation instead of correlation. The authors concluded that the growing volume of infected ticks is more likely a result of climate change and less related than thought to the deer population.
In a conversation with us two days after the Selectmen meeting, Officer Harper mentioned another measure that could be taken to prevent tick-borne illness.
Deer are only carriers of Lyme-bearing ticks. Ticks get the Lyme bacteria by feeding on infected white-footed mice, whose favorite nesting place is barberry shrubs.
Barberry is an invasive species, now banned in Connecticut, that just about everyone wishes had never found its way here. A concerted community effort to eradicate it could be beneficial in many ways, including an effective attack on disease-carrying ticks and disease itself.