To Ernie Foster, a Scituate resident and avid hunter, the reason town officials want to restrict hunting in Scituate’s west end is because they don’t know enough about it.
In fact, he said, the areas where hunters can stalk deer are small, and the possibility of accident or injury is slim.
“When we started looking into this, we started asking questions and getting information, and the more we learned, the more we were surprised. So we thought, ‘Let’s get . . . out and educate people,’ ” he said.
Although education may be a slow process, it started with a public meeting in the Scituate Town Library on July 18, where Foster was joined by dozens of hunters who were equally avid and apprehensive about the prospect of further restrictions.
Hunting had been a moot topic until the recent purchase of 31 acres of open space in West Scituate prompted officials to look into local bylaws. The land, which sits next to the Scituate Rod and Gun Club, was the topic of litigation when stray bullets from the club ended up on neighbors’ property.
When the Advisory Board asked if stray bullets from the club could be a problem for people using the newly acquired land for passive recreation, members discovered that shooting was permitted not only in the club, but in any conservation land west of Route 3A.
Hunters must still follow state guidelines, which do not allow hunting within 500 feet of a dwelling or within 150 feet of a paved road. Still, the news was troubling to some Advisory Board members.
So troubling, in fact, that board member Karen Connolly decided to follow through by changing regulations.
“People can hunt and shoot out there . . . I don’t think that’s right, and I don’t think people in town, when they approved these land acquisitions, knew this was legal,” Connolly said in an interview in April.
Since then, selectmen have charged the Conservation Commission and By-Law Review Commission to review the statutes to see if any change in the measure should be allowed.
According to Conservation Commission Chairman Frank Snow, the commission can’t regulate hunting, but can disallow hunting on town-owned land.
However, the commission is working with the Conway School of Landscape Design on a study of conservation land uses that will include hunting issues.
Snow said the town had never really studied the regulations for conservation land, and felt it was time.
“Where we used to have some pieces of land, now we have 400 to 500 acres, so we want to figure out the best uses,” Snow said.
“We’ve had some policies, especially for trails that people can hike and bike. But this is the first time for a formal review,” Snow said. “The use of an outside source to review [is important] and it will look at all the components of the land — what’s appropriate and where. It’s a process for us, but we want to make things safe.”
According to Snow, the commission is also considering putting up signs to let the public know what is and isn’t allowable in sections of conservation land, and wants feedback on what people would like to see.
Any changes to the bylaw would require approval by Town Meeting.
Snow added that although some residents may be wary of hunting, it’s an important component to regulating deer population — a point made by supporters at last week’s meeting.
“It’s how we keep things in check,” Snow said.
Still, the review of conservation land policies has created anxiety among the hunting community, which turned out in large numbers for the meeting.
“A lot of people don’t know about hunting unless you’re a hunter,” said Jason Zimmer, district manager for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
For example, most people don’t know there are restrictions on the dates when certain animals can be harvested. Furthermore, most hunting can occur only from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.
In Massachusetts, the dangers of hunting were highlighted last New Year’s Eve when a Norton woman was accidentally shot while walking her dogs in the woods near her home. But according to Zimmer, hunting accidents are very rare.
“We’ve never had, in recorded history, a hunting accident in Scituate,” said Zimmer, noting that there has been just one hunting fatality in the state in the last 10 years. “Hunting is one of the safest activities you can participate in . . . You’re more likely to get struck by lighting than be hit by a hunter.”
There are over 71,000 licensed hunters in the state, with an average of three to five hunting accidents a year, Zimmer said. Most of the accidents are self-inflicted or caused by hunters hitting other hunters.
One person who spoke in support of hunting was TV personality and Marshfield resident Jeff Corwin, who is also an avid hunter.
“I’m very nervous when someone from our community wants to deny us access to our natural resources. These laws go back to the Colonial period, because people came to our country because only noble folk and gentry had access to the land,” Corwin said.
“The thing you can do is connect with your neighbors. That’s one of the reason I came tonight . . . I not only enjoy being outside, many of us depend on these resources.”
Going forward, Foster said he hopes to raise money dedicated to posting signage in the woods relative to hunting rules and regulations — to better inform non-hunters of what is occurring around them.
Additionally, Foster hopes people will continue to seek out information, not only through meetings with local hunters, but through meetings of the bylaw review committee.
“We are in it together to conserve as much [land] as possible,” Foster said. But “people [need to] know what the access is and they know what the uses are.”