WESTON – A proposed hunting ban in Weston’s town forests failed with a show of hands by residents packed into a standing-room-only Town Meeting at Weston High School Wednesday night.
The ban proposed by local anti-hunting group Weston Deer Friends would have ended the town’s year-old deer management program that last fall allowed 26 prescreened bow hunters to set up tree stands in five narrowly defined stretches of conservation land in a bid to reduce what officials consider to be an overpopulation of deer.
The Conservation Commission unanimously recommended continuing the hunting program as part of an overall strategy to reduce deer-car collisions, to combat Lyme and other infectious diseases spread by ticks that feed on deer, and to protect crops, residential landscaping, and local forest ecology from being eaten away by deer that are thriving in the suburbs without predators.
“The consequences of deer overabundance are like climate change. They are slow and insidious,” said Conservation Commission chairwoman Laurie Bent. “If you vote to stop bow hunting on public land, you will be removing the only workable option we currently have to manage deer. So please, give us your permission to manage the woodlands, to restore balance to the benefit of human health and vulnerable plants and animals.”
Prior to Wednesday night’s vote, residents listened to two hours of debate, including flashy presentations from Deer Friends, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Conservation Commission. The Board of Health and Agricultural Committee both supported continuing the hunting program and opposed the ban.
Yet-Ming Chiang, one of a dozen Weston residents who waited in a line along the school auditorium walls for a chance to speak up at Town Meeting, drew applause when he introduced himself.
“I wanted you to see what a Weston bow hunter looks like,” said Chiang, raising his arms at the podium.
Chiang, a professor and clean energy technology researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of 26 hunters who killed 18 deer during the Oct. 15 to Dec. 31 hunting period on public land. Another 18 deer were reported killed on private land last year, while 24 deer were reported struck – and presumed killed – in collisions with motor vehicles.
Some residents said Weston needs to take any action necessary to curb the tick population responsible for the spread of Lyme disease, while others focused on the “cruelty” of bow hunting.
Other residents said the Board of Selectmen erred in approving the hunting program without first engaging in the much broader public discussion only recently triggered by the proposed hunting ban. Over the last month, expert panels hosted by both the Conservation Commission and Weston Deer Friends drew overflow crowds, and the local newspaper, the Weston Town Crier, last week published 11 separate letters to the editor on the topic.
Conservation Commission member Brian Donahue told residents Weston is nearing a tipping point in controlling the deer population, which is estimated by state wildlife officials to be 25 deer per square mile, like much of Boston’s wooded western suburbs. The Conservation Commission has said the town needs to reduce the deer population to 8 to 10 deer per square mile.
Donahue said Weston needs to eliminate about 100 deer a year to keep the population in check or risk having deer numbers increase to alarming levels seen in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, where some towns have turned to sharp-shooters to help reduce overgrown herds as dense as 200 deer per square mile.
“That is what really concerns us, and that is what we are trying to avoid while we still have the chance,” Donahue said. “Towns like ours are great deer habitat. There is plenty to eat and not many predators. The deer population is not at equilibrium. We’re seeing a rebound effect all right; deer are presently rebounding from near zero — which is where they were for a couple of centuries — toward the limit of their food supply, which is close to infinity, it seems like.”
Humane Society wildlife ecologist Laura J. Simon assailed bow hunting as too inefficient to have a lasting impact on deer populations. She suggested Weston pursue alternatives to killing the animals, ranging from darting deer with contraceptives to planting gardens with plant varieties deer find less tasty and installing taller fences and water-spraying deer deterrents.
Deer Friends cofounder Alicia Primer brought a collection of arrows to the meeting to make her final appeal to voters, saying the presence of hunters on conservation land has left her feeling unsafe to walk the town’s vast network of trails “during three of the prettiest months of the year.”
“Why should Weston be the suburban destination for hunters?” Primer asked. “If we allow hunting on public land to continue, it will soon arrive in your neighborhood. Do you want to encounter an armed hunter? Do you want your children to pick up an errant arrow? These are dangerous and razor-sharp weapons intended to kill their quarry. Do you want your dog to be the first pet a hunter accidentally kills in Weston?”
Despite failing to ban hunting on town lands, Primer said her group will regroup and continue to oppose the hunting next season.