Deer near Trustom

young deer grazes on the front lawn of an abutting home on Friday afternoon. Next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service could allow hunting at Trustom Wildlife Refuge, raising concern and opposition from neighbors who believe the setbacks aren't nearly big enough. 

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Though their personal views on hunting may differ, Margie Bucheit of Coddington Way said her neighbors are all in agreement on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) expansion and revision of hunting laws at Trustom Pond Wildlife Refuge.

It’s an accident waiting to happen.

Although these expansions and revisions will not take place until next fall, Bucheit and her neighbors are bringing this issue to the South Kingstown Town Council now, with hopes of addressing major safety issues – like the limited setbacks. 

“The safety zones are entirely inadequate,” Bucheit said. “At the very least, I think the council could work with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and get these safety zones expanded.”

“If you came down here and visited our street, you would understand that this street is entirely surrounded by Trustom Wildlife Refuge,” she added. “Every single piece of property is surrounded by Trustom Wildlife, and in some places, the safety zones that have been set up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife do not even consider new houses that have been built on this road.”

The safety zone setbacks are currently 200 feet from a development and only 100 feet from a trail, according to Bucheit. 

Her fellow neighbor, David Fornaro, also hopes the council can take a proactive approach to help protect public safety.

“My house is probably the closest house to the refuge border,” Fornaro said during Monday night’s Zoom council meeting. “Where I’m sitting now, in my office, is 55 feet from the border of the refuge.”

“I don’t really want to wait to find out if there’s going to be a problem,” he added. “I want to be sure there’s not going to be a problem.” 

As Bucheit and some of her fellow neighbors have pointed out, modern crossbows are able to travel 400 feet per-second, and in a neighborhood with small children and animals, the setbacks have been an issue of considerable concern for them. 

The expansion of revisions of hunting laws at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge will allow for 35 white-tail deer permits beginning next fall, and would also allow for wild turkey, coyote and fox hunting. 

These types of expansions and revisions aren’t unique to just Trustom Pond or the Chafee Wildlife Refuge in Narragansett.

The proposal was part of a larger push by the federal government to allow more public access at national wildlife refuges throughout the country. In April, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt announced the proposal of new and expanded hunting and fishing opportunities across more than 2.3 million acres in 97 national wildlife refuges. In Rhode Island, this translated to hunting and fishing opportunities proposed to begin or be expanded at each of the state’s five national wildlife refuges. 

Although these measures have been scaled back a bit, the federal agency noted it has received 1,641 comments and two petitions from the public on the topic when finalizing plans for Rhode Island’s National Wildlife Refuges. 

“After reviewing the public comments, we have changed some things from the draft plan, and some things stayed the same,” a statement from USFWS read. “What has not changed is our commitment to provide a safe opportunity to enjoy the national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island, your national wildlife refuges.”

“Whether it is an existing or new hunting or fishing venture, the Service will monitor these activities and adjust as necessary,” the statement continued. 

Attorney Paul Singer, who is representing the neighborhood’s concerns for public safety, said crossbow hunting may “pose threat of injury, bodily harm, or even fatality.” Hunters could be dangerous threats or unwanted trespassers, he added, if they pursue a wounded animal onto the homeowner’s property. 

Citing federal data, Singer noted that the refuge received roughly 70,000 visitors in 2011 alone. This figure included two dozen schools from, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, he said, including South Kingstown students. 

“The school children, the homeowners who walk on their deeded rights of way through the refuge, and members of the public who visit the refuge would be at great risk,” he said. “Inadvertently, they might be in the hunter’s line of fire.”

He argued that South Kingstown should take any and all possible actions to help prevent a tragedy, including but not limited to asking the  governor to sign an executive order, and having the town council petition its state and congressional representation in an effort to reverse these measures. He also suggested legal action as means to stall the implementation of new services at Trustom. 

One of the central points to his argument was that when Ann Kenyon Morse donated the first 365 acres of what has now become Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, the 1974 deed explicitly states that she wanted the space to be “an inviolate sanctuary for migratory birds and/or as a refuge for wildlife.”

Allowing this expansion, he said, would go against this vision. 

Although there’s a common conception that hunting and fishing are not allowed in national wildlife refuges and that they exist solely to protect the habitat and wildlife within their boundaries, this isn’t true, according to USFWS.

According to the federal agencies website, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, “defines wildlife-dependent recreation as a use of a refuge involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation.”

Hunting information from the Trustom Pond’s webpage also states that when carefully managed, hunting maintains “wildlife populations at a level compatible with the environment, provide[s] wholesome recreational opportunities, and permit[s] the use of a valuable, renewable resource.”

At the moment, one field within the refuge “is open to goose, duck, merganser, and coot hunting opportunities, in accordance with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) [as part of the] South Shore Management Area.”

Town Manager Rober Zarnetske said the town’s hands may be tied on this matter. Although they can regulate impacts that happen on town property, like imposing fines for trespassing while hunting or restricting parking, the town’s authority stops there. 

“There’s not much we can do in regards to the federal government’s use of federal lands,” he said. “We’ve got to tackle the problem to the extent that we can, using our local nexis to that property. And it isn’t much.”

Bucheit’s husband, William Ohley, wasn’t satisfied by this approach, however, and stressed that the time for action was before someone got hurt – not after.

“I think that’s a travesty,” he said. “The town council should at least talk to the governor. We’re just citizens. We try to talk to our representatives, but the town council holds a lot more weight talking with our federal representatives.”

Singer argued that the town does have concurrent jurisdiction with the federal government, however. If a suit was filed, according to Zarnetske, the town could review the theory behind it, and possibly entertain filing an amicus brief to give it some more weight. 

What authority the town may or may not have is a much longer conversation, though, according to Zarnetske, and something that he said he’ll explore further with Singer. 

The town council directed the town staff and the solicitor’s office to come back with recommendations of how to solve this issue. 

Town Council President Abel Collins said it’s unfortunate that these proposals have continued to move forward in Rhode Island, despite strong opposition and pushback from community members. 

“We’ll continue trying to push back on this,” Collins said. “Hopefully a new administration comes in and these ideas never go into effect. But short of that, we’ll continue to work with members of the community to try and make sure people are safe.”

*This article includes reports from Philip Cozzolino. 

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