an open letter to the conservation commission

by Beth Lowe on April 13, 2010

Pine Meadow Pond Morning Mist

Pond Mist c. TintypesDigital

Dear Readers:

As those of you who know me in person or have been following along here already know, I suffer badly with migraines. In my post of September 7, 2009 (here), I was hopeful that I was going to be able to resume blogging regularly. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Still, with the return of spring and a new season on the pond, I’m going to try it again and see what happens.

There is much to write about. Over the winter, our town’s Conservation Commission has been working on a set of formal regulations designed to clearly delineate how the Pine Meadow Pond Conservation Lands, which include the pond, may and may not be used. Up ’til now, there have never really been any “rules.”  As a result, the lands are often subject to the abuse of those who take the lack of regulation as an excuse for behaving badly with this precious natural resource. I’ve discussed some of that bad behavior here.

Michael and I have been attending the public hearings the commission has been holding so that we can contribute to the proposed regulations. As you might imagine, we’re not at all shy about sharing our opinions.  Nor are many of our neighbors: the hearings have been well attended, and a range of views and arguments have been considered in an open and respectful manner.  The good news is that most of the regulations proposed are explicitly intended to protect the area. We are in complete agreement with all of them, except for one. We are categorically against that one, as it would open the Pine Meadow Pond Conservation Land to hunting. Here, then, is the letter we wrote together and submitted to the Conservation Commission.

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April 8, 2010

To the Members of the Ayer Conservation Commission:

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to participate recently in the Conservation Commission’s public hearings to review the proposed regulations for use of the Pine Meadow Pond Conservation Land. It is gratifying to know just how important this area is to so many people in the Town of Ayer. It’s also very gratifying to see how many of the regulations proposed by the Commission were agreed to by those attending the hearings, and with such little fuss.

As the public meeting on March 11, 2010 demonstrated, however, it is abundantly clear that the Pine Meadow conservation area cannot possibly be made into a place that is, effectively, “all things to all people.” Indeed, the total area encompassed by Pine Meadow is simply not large enough, nor remote enough, to satisfy the multitude of recreational possibilities that might potentially be entertained by our town’s inhabitants. The scant 137 acres of land and water in question here cannot reasonably be expected to support not only trail hikers, joggers, birdwatchers, school field trips, kayakers, canoeists, and fishermen, but also mountain bike riders, campers, snowmobilers, and hunters too. Our impression is that most of those who attended the public hearing on March 11 recognized that some amount of usage limitation must be enacted if we are to actively realize the “conservation” of this area, rather than simply enable its demise through ill-considered or inappropriate use.

That said, we remain concerned that some in the room on March 11 supported the notion that hunting should be allowed within the boundaries of the Pine Meadow area. While a show of hands indicated that a clear majority of those in attendance opposed the idea, we nonetheless wanted to express our own opposition to the hunting proposal, as originally put forward, in the most strenuous manner possible.

Our reasons for opposing the opening of Pine Meadow to general year-round hunting are simple, non-ideological, and non-emotional. They are, rather, the result of rationally analyzing the main arguments made on March 11 by those who support hunting. They are also an expression of what we believe to be rather uncontroversial notions of common sense and public safety.

As we understand it, the argument in favor of permitting hunting on Pine Meadow revolves largely around concerns involving the burgeoning white-tail deer population in Massachusetts. Unconstrained by natural predators, and without sufficient hunting by humans to keep it in check, so the argument goes, the Massachusetts deer population has exploded in recent years, bringing with it an increased incidence of Lyme disease. At best, deer are bothersome nibblers of our suburban shrubs and tender, expensive saplings. At worst, they spread disabling, onerous diseases and regularly cause potentially deadly traffic accidents on our country roads and highways.

None of this, of course, should be taken lightly, or dismissed out of hand. But neither should any of it be taken as gospel without the benefit of solid data. Those of us who live along the shores of Pine Meadow Pond, those of us who walk its trails, senior citizens, school children, birdwatchers and joggers alike, need to know that the person walking behind us with a gun over his shoulder is there for a good and sensible reason (not to mention that he’ll act responsibly with his weapon, which, as will soon be noted, cannot always be assumed).

Unfortunately, reliable numbers to support the proposal to allow deer hunting have not yet been forthcoming. The MassWildlife representative who attended the March 11 hearing was unable to provide relevant data on local deer populations or deer-related events specific to the Pine Meadow Pond area, or even to the Town of Ayer in general. Further, the few numbers that the representative did provide were, unfortunately, misleading at best.

The representative began by offering that “the northeast part of the state” of Massachusetts (not Ayer, not the Nashoba Valley, but the entire northeastern part of the state) currently has a deer population of some 20-25 animals per square mile, while the optimal number is actually somewhere in the “6-10” deer per sq. mile range. Mass Audubon, however, using numbers quoted from a biologist working for MassWildlife (the very organization that employs the rep who attended the town’s public hearing), indicates that the optimal number of deer per square mile is in the range of 15-20. The representative’s strong intimation at the public hearing was that Ayer does indeed have a deer population problem, but clearly her numbers are nowhere near specific enough to persuade us that that is in fact the case.

Nor, as it happens, was the MassWildlife representative, or anyone else at the meeting, in possession of any data regarding the number of vehicular incidents involving deer, the number of reports of damage to residential lawns and gardens, or the incidence of Lyme disease in our community. In short, we have before us the assertion of a serious deer problem in our area, but no data that holds up to even the most cursory analysis. Developing public policy on the basis of no evidence, or inaccurate, or misleading data would seem like very poor public policy indeed – would it not?

Let us assume for a moment, just the same, that Ayer does indeed have a “deer problem.” Let us assume that we do not have an absence of reliable data, but rather real, incontrovertible data of an over-population problem, the sort that cries out for concerted action. What would be the best way to address the issue? By opening up this one 137-acre, mixed-use domain along the edge of a densely-populated suburban area to people with shotguns? In a word: “no.” Research has shown, somewhat counter-intuitively, that sport hunting of deer is actually not the most effective way to reduce and control deer populations. How so? Here are the reasons:

- Deer hunts typically do not eradicate entire populations. The animals that survive hunting season subsequently have less competition for food and mates, thus allowing them to prosper, stay healthy, and become even more prolific. The result is that herd size quickly rebounds.

- The only certain way to impact herd size over the long term is to cull does rather than bucks. Hunters, however, would rather take bucks, as everyone who understands the culture of deer hunting in America will attest. Even more to the point: hunting antlerless deer in Massachusetts requires a separate permit from the state for each deer desired. Each of those permits is an additional cost to the hunter. There are only a certain number of antlerless deer permits available each year, and they may be in places far afield from where the hunter (or the town) wishes to hunt.

- The most effective, demonstrated way to manage and reduce deer populations is through the use of professional sharpshooters. These are typically hired by the town for a set length of time, usually two to three days, and the deer are typically hunted at night, thus maximizing the number of deer killed and minimizing danger to human populations. The deer carcasses are usually donated to charities, such as soup kitchens, to be used as food.

In other words, if we’re serious about reducing the local deer population, studies have shown that the professional approach just articulated has a far higher degree of efficacy than any other solution.

What about Lyme disease? Won’t the mere existence of deer, no matter the exact numbers, bring us an increase in this particular kind of pestilence? Here the short answer is “yes.” But again, our assumptions, and the available evidence, need to be closely examined. As it happens, sadly, reducing the deer population does not necessarily guarantee a concomitant reduction in tick infestation. Ixodes scapularis, commonly known as the deer tick, not only parasitizes deer; it feeds on mice, squirrels, and birds, all of which are numerous in the Pine Meadow conservation area. Simply reducing the deer population will not therefore guarantee that the tick population will also be reduced. In fact, the results of a study done at Penn State in 2006 indicated that reducing deer in a small area ultimately led to an increase of ticks in the region, because, having lost their former, primary food source in the deer population, the ticks simply moved on to other hosts – rodents, birds, and people.

In short, neither the data at hand nor the weight of the evidence offered by other towns and states supports an indiscriminate, or simple-minded approach to deer eradication as part of the Pine Meadow Conservation Lands use policy. If deer are truly a problem in this area, then a far more nuanced, and frankly intelligent policy of “professional eradication” would seem to be indicated, at least if our goal is truly to be effective in reducing the deer population.

Canoe on pondEven more important, however, is the question of public safety. In our view, this needs to be the primary consideration in determining the best policies for managing the Pine Meadow Conservation Lands. As was noted in the March 11 public hearing, the Pine Meadow area is relatively small. The already-agreed-upon uses include public access for hiking, bird-watching, kayaking, and the like. On any given day, no matter the month of the year, one can and will encounter any number of individuals or groups enjoying the area’s scenery. Allowing not just deer hunting in this context, but also agreeing to the broader proposal to permit hunting of everything from crows to coyotes to squirrels, raccoons, and bear, would effectively make a mockery of the notion that this area will be safe for the general public during the 11 months of the year that Massachusetts allows hunting in posted areas.

Of course, advocates for expanding the hunting domains within our state will argue that hunting is legal, safe, and thus unobjectionable by any reasonable person. They will maintain, as did our MassWildlife representative, that hunting accidents are rare, and that fatalities effectively never happen in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, this sanguine view doesn’t present the whole story. While it is indeed true that here have been relatively few hunting accidents in Massachusetts in recent years, they are not non-existent. Between 1995 and 2004, there were 40 hunting accidents reported in the state. Fatalities are indeed rare. The most recent took place in 2005. In 2006, however, a man in Martha’s Vineyard was injured by buckshot in a “shoot and run” incident in Tisbury. The victim, an experienced hunter himself, was wearing the required blaze orange vest. The perpetrator left the scene without attempting to help the injured man. In late 2009, just a few months ago, there were three hunter-to-hunter injuries in our state, and in one rather bizarre case, two llamas on a western Massachusetts farm were deliberately killed in a bow and arrow attack. In the Pine Meadow Pond area under consideration, one local resident, a farm owner, indicated at the public hearing in March that several of her farm animals have been injured by hunters over the years, people who were illegally hunting on posted private property.

None of this is particularly encouraging, and all of it begs the obvious question: “why would we even entertain allowing hunting in such a highly-populated, highly-traveled area as ours?” Let us remember that opening up the Pine Meadow area, to the extent that has been proposed, will result not simply in the shotgun pursuit of deer during a few weeks in December, but to general hunting throughout the year of all species allowed under Massachusetts law: crow, pheasant, grouse, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, fox, opossum, black bear, and coyote. Let us also keep in mind that 6 out of the 13 species listed on the chart below can be hunted in the months indicated with rifles, not simply shotguns. One species or another can be hunted with such weapons in almost every month of the year. Only the month of June is exempt from hunting of any sort.

Hunting season chart

(Compiled from MassWildlife 2010 Hunting Regulations)

Allowing hunters access to the Pine Meadow area with the range of weapons permitted by this schedule, and for the number of months indicated would be, in our view, a disaster for the larger public and its safe enjoyment of these lands and waters. The 500 foot “buffer zone,” as articulated at the hearing in March, offers little comfort. It would be, we all know, utterly unenforceable. By their own admission, the Ayer Police Department lacks the resources in manpower and equipment to properly police the trails and woods of Pine Meadow. Hunters would effectively be allowed to police themselves in terms of honoring the 500 foot buffer rule.

Let us all recognize, honestly, just how absurd, and unsafe, a situation this would be. All of the houses that ring Pine Meadow Pond would fall well within the one mile range of a hunter with a simple .22 caliber rifle. Literally hundreds of people who reside in the Oak Ridge Drive neighborhood would fall within the range of a bullet launched in the air over Pine Meadow Pond. Never mind the hundreds of cars that pass along the pond’s edge on any given day. And what of the school children walking down a trail on a field trip, or the joggers coming around a corner with their dogs, or a kayaker paddling by? All would potentially stand within range of a hunter and his weapon, no matter whether it was a bow and arrow, a “primitive” musket (as the law allows during deer season), a shotgun, or a rifle. All would be potential targets. However unintended, a policy that allows extensive hunting in Pine Meadow would make them so.

For those of us who live in the Pine Meadow area, some of whom live directly upon its shores, and for those who care about being good stewards of both our natural spaces and our human community, the risks inherent in permitting hunting in this particular conservation area are simply too high – unacceptably high. These risks are also unnecessary. MassWildlife maintains several Wildlife Management Areas in our region: in Dunstable, Townsend/Groton, Shirley and Pepperell, to name just a few. Our local hunters can easily go to these places to practice their hobby. The recreational needs of a few should not trump the reasonable safety expectations of an entire community.

The pond

Ultimately, the real question here isn’t whether hunting accidents will happen, or only occasionally happen, but rather whether hunting is, in fact, consistent with a vision for the Pine Meadow Conservation Lands that represents “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Clearly, we do not believe that it is. In fact, we believe that permitting hunting on these lands will actually reduce their use and enjoyment by non-hunters, many of whom, like us, will choose to avoid the area rather than put ourselves and our loved ones in harm’s way.

For those of us who reside along the edges of these lands, the danger represented by hunting will be a new, permanent, and unwanted dimension in our lives.
It is our sincere hope that you will consider these comments carefully and decide to keep the Pine Meadow Pond Conservation Land closed to hunting.

Sources:

In Defense of Animals (http://www.idausa.org/facts/deercontrol.html).

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/deercontrol.html#cullhar).

Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife 2010 Guide to Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping, p. 26.

Various sources. See: Los Angeles Times (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/unleashed/2010/02/deer-obama-camp-david.html), Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/04/AR2006050401821.html), Deer Population Management Through Hunting and Alternative Means of Control (http://mdagnrpolicy.arec.umd.edu/Conferences/Deer-Management-in-Maryland/warren.htm), among many others.

Science Daily (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060830214714.htm).

The Martha’s Vineyard Times (http://www.mvtimes.com/news/2006/12/07/deer_hunting_accident.php).

Committee to Abolish Sports Hunting (http://www.all-creatures.org/cash/accident-center.html#sh).

Pond ducks

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous April 13, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Amen sistah!

Reply

JJS April 14, 2010 at 4:33 am

Well done letter – it’s comprehensive, reasonable, clear and persuasive. I hope they listen to reason!

Reply

Beth Lowe April 17, 2010 at 11:56 am

Anonymous, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. From your mouth, er, keyboard, to the Commission’s pens. Hope you visit again.

JJS, as always, thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for the praise – means a lot coming from you. Or is that the famous Alot?! I hear he/she/it swims in these here waters. (Readers: check out http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html).

In all seriousness, I, too, hope the Commission listens to reason. I shall keep you, and everyone else, posted.

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