A Matter of Balance
I love deer—a sentiment bordering on heresy in a town of gracious properties and gardens. So, when I received a letter announcing Wilton’s deer hunt, I set out to understand the logic behind this tragedy. What I learned surprised me.
Wilton was not always home to white-tailed deer. Common in pre-Colonial Connecticut, herds were decimated by European colonization, leading legislators to outlaw deer hunting in 1648.
State laws fluctuated over the centuries that followed, and by the early 1900s, the deer count was a mere 12—statewide. As farmlands reverted back to forests during the Industrial Revolution, herds once again thrived.
The mid-1900s spawned suburbs and with them edge habitats—the first 25 feet of woodland beyond a home’s lawn. Lush with tender seedlings and native vegetation, edge habitats serve up a veritable smorgasbord to browsing deer. “We created circumstances that allowed the deer population to explode,” explains environmental affairs director Patricia Sesto. “In addition to encouraging edge habitats, we eliminated the deer’s natural predators.”
Forest ecosystems such as Wilton’s can support about 20 deer per square mile. A 2003 flyover conducted by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimated the deer population at 60 per square mile, or 1,600 town-wide.
Instituted in 2001, Wilton’s deer hunt is the result of an 18-month study conducted by a Selectmen-appointed committee. Animal activists, wildlife biologists, and representatives from Audubon and The Nature Conservancy helped inform the committee’s recommendation to curtail forest degradation, deer/vehicular accidents and the spread of Lyme disease via a formalized hunt.
Forests are home to a diversity of plants and trees at various stages of life. When a storm damages woodlands and mature trees fall, young saplings and native plants—which comprise the “understory”—are poised to grow. Sunlight filters in, providing abundant nourishment and saplings shoot up to fill in the gaps left by their predecessors. Deer browsing destroys this next-generation growth leading to permanent destruction.
The understory is also home to birds that nest in and feed upon its ecosystem. “This area is a hotspot for the Eastern seaboard migration,” Sesto said, “but our forests no longer support those migratory birds or the insects they eat. Without the understory, these forest inhabitants don’t survive.”
Then there’s the tick issue. Surprisingly, ticks are not hatched carrying Lyme bacteria. Nymphs and larval attach to small rodents from whom they contract the disease. Mature ticks, seeking large mammals to feed on, relocate up to deer height and wait. If a deer doesn’t pass by, the tick eventually dies. Since a single deer can host more than 100 ticks, a reduction in the herd significantly impacts the reproductive success of these disease-spreading parasites.
The deer hunt is serious business for Sesto and the Deer Committee. In addition to abiding by state regulations, Wilton’s hunters undergo rigorous proficiency testing and must use a tree stand to ensure that the trajectory of their shot is always downward.
“Our hunters are ethical people and consider it a privilege to have access to Wilton property,” said Sesto. “They don’t want the animals to suffer and they care that the kill is as swift and humane as possible.”
Hunting is all about character according to hunter and Wilton Police Department Officer, Tim Fridinger. “True hunters adhere to the regulations religiously and respect the animal as much as the sport. We are stewards of the environment and take responsibility for the welfare of the woods in which we hunt.”
Approximately 90% of Wilton land is privately owned, so resident participation is vital to the program’s success. Landowners interested in permitting hunting on their property can find vetted hunters through the town’s Department of Environmental Affairs.
“I’ve watched the woods that were my childhood playground disappear,” said Alice Levin who has allowed hunting on her land for 15 years. “Deer are truly beautiful creatures and I understand people who feel we shouldn’t kill them, but when nature gets out of balance—partly because of what we have done—we need to act or there will be no woods left to preserve.”
Donna Merrill first allowed hunting on her property last winter. “Everything we take for granted now is going to be gone sooner than people may realize. It doesn’t mean we have to eliminate these magnificent creatures; we just need to achieve a level that won’t allow the ticks to reproduce in sufficient numbers. Research shows that Lyme disease drops dramatically when the deer population numbers 8 to 10 per square mile.”
While the crack of gunshot still sends a chill up my spine, I understand the vital role the deer hunt plays in ensuring that Wilton’s magnificent forests remain healthy and safe for generations to come.