Last week the Village of Mariemont’s council agreed on a plan to redesign the bow hunting program that began illegally last fall and was quickly suspended. But facts are vague and opinions divided, on why the program began without input from the town council or the public, and whether it should be revived.
The controversy broke shortly after Rick Hines, Mariemont’s police chief, and Dan Policastro, the village’s mayor, authorized eight bow hunters to kill up to one buck, two does, and unlimited coyotes. Using nieghborhing Indian Hill’s annual cull as a model, they would shoot from tree stands on an 80-acre triangle of cultivated land between the southern edge of residential Mariemont and the Little Miami River, during the season that began Sept. 27. The group of hunters included two police officers, two fire fighters, a village maintenance officer, Hines’ son, an acquaintance of Hines, and one local resident.
The program first came before the village’s council at its Oct. 12 meeting, when a resident inquired about its progress. Council members expressed dismay at their exclusion from the program’s development, and according to Oct. 27 meeting minutes, Councilwoman Melissa Schmit said the omission looked “highly suspicious.”
Schmit also pointed out that the program violated Mariemont’s Ordinance 137.09, which prohibits both shooting arrows and hunting in the village limits. And in doing so unannounced, she argued, it endangered visitors to the 80 acres–dog walkers and teens in particular.
Last week evidence of both abounded in the area, where wheat and soy fields surround a community garden. Paw prints and chewed tennis balls encircled the garden, mingling with deer tracks. Paint ball splats decorated the side of a compost shed, expletives annotated a railroad crossing sign, and about 10 muddy yards downhill from the garden, coffee cans full of ashes and wax sat abandoned by the side of the Little Miami.
Mayor Policastro acknowledged that bypassing the council had been an error, but said he hadn’t known the land fell within village limits. He added that he and Officer Hines had acted quickly because of pressure from Josh Zientek, Hamilton County’s Wildlife Officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). According to Policastro, “He was very aggressive, that this needed to be done.”
But Zientek said he gave no indication of urgency. “I didn’t say this hunting season, I just said, ‘This is something you should look into.’ It didn’t matter to me, obviously, when they did it.”
Mariemont’s council voted Nov. 10 to suspend the program; by then one buck had been shot by Barry Luppert, the acquaintance of Officer Hines.
Human health and safety
The program’s main proponents, Mayor Policastro, Police Chief Hines, and Council Safety Committee Chairman Dennis Wolter, have said residents face several dangers if deer and coyote populations are not culled. They listed Lyme disease, bluetongue disease, coyote attacks on small children, and automobile collisions with deer.
But three of these claims were contradicted by the experts Policastro said he relied on for advice: ODNR’s Zientek and Don Hopkins, a local conservationist who has worked with the organization Little Miami, Inc. in the woods abutting Mariemont, since 1969.
“Whatever [Don] tells me, I take for gospel truth,” said Policastro.
Hopkins, 81, chuckled at the idea that local ticks were dangerous. “‘Lyme disease! We’ll get Lyme disease!'” he chirped. “Far as I’m concerned, that’s sort of a Chicken Little thing. I practically live outdoors, off-path, and I’ve never had Lyme disease. I’ve had ticks on me, but never black-legged ticks.”
According to Zientek, epizootic hemorrhagic disease–the fly-borne viral infection in deer that is sometimes confused with bovine bluetongue disease–is not known to pose a risk to humans or domestic animals.
Neither Zientek nor Hopkins had heard of any coyote attacks on children. Zientek said that in Ohio’s records only one adult, who intentionally cornered a sick coyote near Cleveland, has been bitten.
Critics and proponents of Mariemont’s hunting program agree on one thing: coyotes are too few, wary, and intelligent for the program to have a meaningful impact on their numbers.
Hopkins, who considers himself a life-long hunter and thinks the local coyote population needs to be controlled, believes coyotes entered this discussion for another reason.
“I think the coyote thing has been added to increase the acceptability of the deer thing,” he said. “They try to think of everything they can to justify hunting deer.”
Mike Lemon, Mariemont’s former mayor, agreed. He offered one word, “Deflection,” to explain why he thought coyotes were part of the program.
Policastro said he’d rather be safe than sorry, with coyotes around children. “You don’t want to say, aw jeez, it couldn’t happen or it might not happen. You just can’t do that in today’s world.”
The mayor, who was an insurance adjuster for 35 years before taking his current office, also recounted memories of gruesome deaths from deer strikes in claims he had handled.
“Safety is the most important thing,” he said. “That’s a mayor’s job—the safety of the citizens.”
Animal health and safety
There have been no reports of Mariemont dogs or cats hurt by coyotes, but Indian Hill tallies several attacks on companion animals each year. One Mariemont resident has also been quoted in newspapers as saying she saw a coyote in a park “licking his chops” at her small dog.
On the health of wild animals, Councilman Wolter argued that those who oppose hunting for “emotional” reasons simply lack experience. “Urban folks who’ve never hunted see it as bad, they don’t understand that it’s better for the animal,” he said. “They’ve never seen an animal starve to death.”
Wolter said he had seen starving deer in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park—but, he admitted, never in Ohio.
Dave Risley, ODNR’s head of wildlife management research, called deer starvation in Ohio very rare: “Our habitats could support a lot more deer than they do know.”
“It’s not so much biological carrying capacity,” Officer Zientek clarified. “It’s more the sociological carrying capacity—it’s what humans can handle.”
Opinions around town
Isabelle Schram, a resident of Mariemont for 9 years who has weighed in on the hunting program in council meetings, described herself as “pretty much against hunting in general.” She said she enjoys living on her large, wooded lot because of the wild animals that share it, including deer and a coyote.
In Schram’s opinion, a survey sent out from the Mayor’s office to assess support for hunting, was structured around the assumption that both deer and coyotes were overpopulated. The questions, she said, played on residents’ fear of coyotes, making it hard to oppose any part of the program by lumping the two species together and offering no alternative solutions.
Residents were asked to respond to the following questions, printed on the back of the Mayor’s monthly bulletin:
- Have you seen deer in the residential area, in the roadways, experienced deer/car accidents or near misses?
- Have you had deer in your yard, or damage to gardens, flowers, or landscaping?
- Do you believe that we have deer/coyote overpopulations in the village of Mariemont?
- Do you support the establishment of a tightly-controlled deer/coyote culling program in the South 80 Acres (controlled hunt using bows only)
Many residents said in interviews that they never received the survey, or got it only after the deadline to respond had passed. Of those that received it in time, 98 responded. According to Policastro, about 80% of respondents expressed support for the program.
Considering the village had no data to prove that a problem existed, Schram said she thought an undeclared motive underlay the program.
“I think it’s because they like hunting,” she said. ” They want to have a little fun, so they are trying to find some reasons.”
But Andy Gordon, a Mariemont resident, scout leader, and hunter whose son was the one resident to receive a hunting permit last fall, said he believed the program had arisen from “very, very good intentions.” The survey, he added, was “a good step forward in asking the community their opinions.”
Gordon, also a writer, said he was asked to write about the hunting program for the village’s Town Crier, but declined because it was such a delicate issue.
“I think it has to be very carefully discussed in the community, as to how you determine whether or not you have a problem.”
Defining a problem
The hunting program’s latest version proposes to inform and involve residents, and requires hunters to take a safety training run by ODNR. Despite these improvements, though, some see its failure to articulate either a problem or a goal as a persistent flaw.
At the village council’s Nov. 10 meeting, Vice-mayor Rex Bevis said he would like to see a program that would define the problem first, before the solution.
When Mike Lemon, former mayor of the village, heard about the program, he asked the council and mayor how many deer lived in Mariemont. He said he could get no satisfactory answer. “Everything I heard was either anecdotal or opinion.”
Alarmed by the program’s illegality and by what he saw as its lack of a scientific basis, he pressed the council to change the village’s anti-hunting ordinance, and meanwhile approached Indian Hill for information about its annual deer count. The neighboring town, which splits the cost of a helicopter count with Madeira each winter, invited Mariemont to join them at a cost to each of about $2500.
But Mayor Policastro called the proposal too expensive, and Councilman Wolter said they had enough information already, from citizens’ deer sighting reports.
Bill Ebelhar, another member of the council Safety Committee in charge of hunting, said he considered the survey to have translated anecdote into data. He also said that measuring the village’s deer numbers would miss the point of the program, which is to decrease the number of deer “incidents”–not inhabitants–in Mariemont.
He and others, however, expressed an uncertainty about whether deer seen in the village were in fact the same deer seen in the southern 80 acres, and therefore whether the proposed cull would reduce deer sightings in residential areas, or not.
Perspectives on trophy hunting
Ebelhar also echoed a version of Schram’s theory: “I think there was some concern early on, that the deer program was really license for somebody to go down and get a 10-point buck.” He said he did not believe this was true, “but even if that was the case, I think we now have enough data from the surveys to indicate there’s a problem.”
According to Assistant Fire Chief Matt Morgan, the buck killed in Mariemont looked like a 10-pointer, based on a photograph of the archer and trophy he saw at the fire department.
“Is that what we were supposed to be going down there to control?” asked the bow hunter of 25 years, now licensed in Mariemont. “I don’t know. . . If there’s a policy in place, or we’re doing this for a reason, we’d be out to shoot does, before we’d be out trophy-hunting.”
But Councilman Wolter, a bird hunter, said he thinks that removing the incentive of a trophy would cause hunters to lose interest in the program.
“I think if you tell a hunter who’s in there early in the season and a 10-pointer goes by, that he can’t keep it. . . ” he trailed off.
Andy Gordon, who feeds his family venison, said there are plenty of excellent deer hunters who hunt only for food. “If you’re gonna have a program, and you have an objective,” he said, “then you would select your hunters to achieve your outcome.”
As it stands, the program’s objective remains unclear. According to Mayor Policastro, who has hunted birds but not deer, it was first considered a recreation project. “We took it out of Health and Recreation and put it in Safety, because we’re more concerned about the safety of people.”
“But when the wintertime comes,” said Policastro, “and no one’s gardening down there, it’s a perfect place for deer hunters.
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Photographs are by the author.