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Nature Conservancy’s deer hunt at Devil’s Den in Weston starts this week

Devil’s Den is closed to the public for a controlled deer hunt on select weekdays beginning Wednesday, Nov. 14 and ending Tuesday, Dec. 4. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

The Nature Conservancy will hold its annual controlled deer hunt at Devil’s Den Preserve in Weston and Redding during the state-designated shotgun and rifle hunting season, which is open from Wednesday, Nov. 14, through Tuesday, Dec. 4.

The purpose of the controlled hunt, which has been held each fall since 2001, is to help reduce deer overpopulation and its negative impacts.

The hunt will place on the following weekdays: Wednesday, Nov. 14 and Thursday, Nov. 15; Nov. 19-21 (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday); Nov. 26 -29 (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday); and December 3-4 (Monday, Tuesday).

Devil’s Den will be closed to visitors on these days, and signs will be posted at all public entrances to the preserve. The conservancy requests that residents and their families, guests and tenants refrain from visiting the preserve on these days.

The deer management effort will only take place in select areas of the preserve’s interior, away from the edges of the preserve and any neighboring residences. The conservancy is working with experienced sportsmen who have been recruited by Devil’s Den staff members and have knowledge of the preserve and local area.

Venison obtained through the hunt will be donated to Hunters for the Hungry, a statewide nonprofit group that accepts donations of venison for distribution to local charities and food pantries.

The size of the deer herd in Fairfield County varies from town to town; in 2000, best estimates of deer abundance were in the range of 60 individuals per square mile, higher than in any other county in Connecticut.

The high density of deer in southwestern Connecticut has been associated with a high incidence of deer-and-vehicle accidents and Lyme disease cases. The Nature Conservancy has been particularly concerned about the ecological damage to the region’s forests caused by the excessive browsing of overabundant deer.

When The Nature Conservancy launched its effort to manage deer at Devil’s Den Preserve in 2001, very few managers of natural areas in the region were managing deer, and the deer population was well beyond the carrying capacity of the forest.

For example, the only large tracts of forest land under deer management were two tracts of forest located next to reservoirs managed by the Aquarion Water Company, and these properties had only been open to deer hunting for one year.

Sustained over time, the unnaturally large population of deer damaged the forest understory and contributed to the gradual loss of native flowering plants. Many tree species, especially the oaks, were unable to regenerate because the acorns and saplings were consumed by deer.

According to the conservancy, research has shown that deer densities of as few as 26 per square mile may prevent regeneration in oak forests. Less abundant deer populations, in the range of eight to 12 deer per square mile, are required for healthy forests with diverse and complex understories.

Today, deer management efforts have expanded tremendously throughout the region through the efforts of groups such as Aquarion Water Company, Wilton Land Conservation Trust, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the towns of Redding, Ridgefield, Wilton, and Weston; and The Nature Conservancy.

With these efforts, forest conditions have improved in those areas where lands have been under management for the longest periods of time.

In the last few years at Devil’s Den Preserve, the conservancy has seen the reappearance of such relict species as bloodroot and pink lady slipper on the forest floor beyond the cliff ledge refuges to which they were previously restricted.

The structural complexity of the forest is increasing, as young oaks and shrubs such as pink azalea and maple-leaved viburnum are able to grow and more and more plants are able to flower and go to seed.

The Nature Conservany is confident its annual limited hunt, in combination with the increased deer management efforts regionally, will eventually maintain a sustainable level of resident deer at Devil’s Den and in much of the surrounding landscape of the Saugatuck Forest Lands, ultimately improving the ecological condition of these forest lands.

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