Land Use

Neighbors Feel Caught in Crossfire as Trustom Refuge Increases Hunting Access

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The nearly 800-acre Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, R.I., will be open to archery hunting next year. (USFWS)

Recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approval that expands and, in the case of the John H. Chafee and Sachuest Point preserves allows, hunting in Rhode Island’s five national wildlife refuges has upset a group of neighbors who live near a refuge where crossbow hunting will be licensed next year.

While waterfowl hunting will continue to be allowed in a limited area at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s final hunting and fishing plan for the refuge allows archery hunting for deer, wild turkey, fox, and coyote throughout much of the 777-acre preserve.

Margaret Bucheit and her husband, William Ohley, have lived at their Coddington Way property that abuts open space next to Trustom for 13 years. They held a physically distanced neighborhood meeting Aug. 15 at the end of their cul-de-sac to discuss concerns about the refuge’s increased hunting opportunities. Eight of the 10 families who live in their Land N Sea development attended.

“In no way does our neighborhood consider this change of use safe. Many of us walk year-round in the woods behind our homes,” Bucheit said. “We do not want hunters with weapons in the woods behind our homes. We truly feel unsafe.”

The subdivision and its 35 acres of open space abuts 270 acres of Trustom that will be open to 35 bow hunters for four months beginning in fall 2021. Both Bucheit and Ohley, who shoots a longbow, are particularly concerned about the use of crossbows to kill game, noting they fire arrows that can move up to 400 feet per second (272 mph) and travel up to 1,500 feet.

“Fish and Wildlife is letting thirty-five strangers shoot those bows for four months of the year on the border of my neighborhood,” Bucheit said. “The season will be in autumn, during the bird migration, a time when most of us down here love to walk in the refuges, a time that draws visitors, educators, researchers, and families.”

The longtime Rhode Island couple, who have hired a Rhode Island attorney to represent the neighborhood’s interests, recently told ecoRI News that abutter concerns weren’t given enough credence and that the intent of property deeded to help create the refuge was ignored.

Westerly-based attorney Paul Singer has noted that Ann Kenyon Morse, in 1974, donated the refuge’s first 365 acres with the understanding that it would be used as “an inviolate sanctuary for birds and/or as a refuge for wildlife.” He said the deed makes no mention of hunting. He also noted that South Kingstown doesn’t allow hunting on town-owned property, even as the Fish & Wildlife Service expands it on federal property.

Singer said Trustom is used year-round “by people seeking a peaceful location where they can relax in a natural setting and observe nature.” He asked how hunting at Trustom fits in with Morse’s wishes?

While Morse’s donation help create Trustom’s foundation, the refuge expanded in 1982 when the Audubon Society of Rhode Island donated 151 acres. The refuge, which is now nearly 800 acres, features various wildlife habitats, including fields, shrublands, woodlands, fresh and saltwater ponds, and sandy beaches and dunes.

The area is home to some 275 bird species, 40 mammal species, and 20 amphibian species. On the southern boundary of the property is one of the few Rhode Island nesting sites for two species of concern, the least tern and piping plover.

Trustom gets between 50,000 and 70,000 visitors annually.

Bucheit and Ohley claim a warranty deed shows their neighborhood rights as abutters for access onto and across the refuge. They said the Fish & Wildlife Service didn’t take this right of way into consideration when creating Trustom’s hunting safety zone. According to this deed, they said, neighbors have access across Trustom by walking, horseback, and bicycle to reach the beach, per a property-sale agreement with Joseph and Frances Young, who nearly four decades ago sold about 60 acres of their land to the federal government to be incorporated into the Trustom refuge.

Opponents said the Fish & Willdife Service’s safety zone is inadequate, particularly in regards to private property. Ohley called it a “joke.” They said at least one house isn’t even marked as protected, and they noted that none of the neighborhood’s trails through jointly owned open space are marked.

The Fish & Wildlife Service plan says all archers must carry a state hunting license, which requires a hunter education course, and must show proficiency in the use of archery equipment. It says no hunting will be allowed within 200 feet of a dwelling or within 100 feet of a public trail.

“We are confident that this activity can be accommodated safely and with minimal conflicts with other users,” according to the federal agency.

The agency has noted that the finalized hunting and fishing plan isn’t going to harm the overall population of any wildlife species on the refuges. It’s likely that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management will handle licensing and oversight at the five federal refuges.

“Our plan is about sharing these lands with others, even though some may not agree with how others choose to enjoy the natural environment,” according to the Fish & Wildlife Service. “These lands are for every citizen’s use, for all Americans, not just a few.”

In a letter dated June 5 and sent to Charlie Vandermoer, the Charlestown-based refuge manager for the Rhode National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Singer and the neighbors he represents note the property deeds used to create Trustom and the concerns they have about the expansion of refuge hunting.

They would like to see the finalized plan for the refuge scrapped, or at least curtailed to a few weeks or days as was done for the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, where three- to five-day hunts will begin in 2022 or 2023; the hunts will not occur every year. The Aquidneck Island refuge will be closed during these special hunts.

Opponents acknowledged that the refuge’s deer population is a problem, but said there are other solutions, with more community input, that could be implemented.

The concerns of the neighborhood group being led by Bucheit and Ohley are expected to be on the agenda for the South Kingstown Town Council meeting scheduled for Sept. 14.

The council’s options, however, are likely limited, as federal regulations trump state and local ones. One possible avenue for the council to take, if the five members or a majority share similar concerns about expanded hunting at Trustom, would be to file an injunction that could stop the implementation of the plan long enough that a potential new White House administration could stop it.

Others who are concerned about the Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent decision to expand hunting at the five refuges can send an email to trustom.no.hunt@gmail.com. Bucheit and Ohley are looking to expand their network of opposition.

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  1. disgusting that those relatively small numbers who like to kill wild animals will spoil this "refuge" for neighbors and everyone else for the best months of the year, but its all part of the Trump regime’s extensive war on wildlife

  2. barry,
    Please understand that there is a lot more to consider than emotion or politics in FWS wildlife refuge activities. Each time you comment you blame politics or something more sinister. These types of uses (like it or not) are built into FWS authority over these lands. People are very unlikely to even see someone hunting. The "thought" of it is a lot "worse" than the reality. Migratory bird hunting is probably the most strictly controlled and managed hunting there is. I’ve always bought Federal Duck Stamps because of how the money is used, not to go duck hunting.
    This isn’t a private property situation with a bunch of poachers hunting illegally. It’s an open space opportunity for a limited user group. As land acquisition for homes has continued to fragment habitat, it also has reduced safe hunting opportunities and allowed white-tailed deer populations to expand (predators are also displaced).
    My preference for any type of use is that it be based upon law rather than emotion. I don’t know if there is merit in the Ann Kenyon Morse land donation argument. I hope it plays out to a "legal" conclusion. Archery hunters are typically the most practiced and ethical. There is little if any risk to other users of the area or nearby landowners.
    If I were planning on purchasing a property, I think I’d better research the potential activities that can "legally" occur on the abutting lands prior to purchase rather than simply throwing a tantrum for an activity I didn’t like when it occurs.

  3. If the deer population is not managed, eventually there will be no woody vegetation in the preserve except for some exotic invasive. That would be harmful to all other wildlife, and eventually become harmful to the deer too.

  4. Besides the obvious that this is a “ wildlife refuge” and people do hike through there to see said wildlife and migratory birds are the legal issues that this land was DONATED for specific use as a REFUGE… to the TOWN. Isn’t DEM a FEDERAL agency? Do they have the legal right? And if they are making only the federal lands “ huntable” what happens when an injured animal runs onto the “ refuge” side of the town? What about hikers? Will hunting areas be marked to prevent accidents?

  5. Let’s think about the basics for a moment. The National Wildlife Refuge system originated from a need to protect wildlife habitat from human development. Wetlands have been a primary focus because of their importance as nesting and migratory habitat for waterfowl, and the protection of these habitats has been aided by considerable funding by private groups, especially Ducks Unlimited.

    NWRs also protect endangered species. Although the main impetus for creating Trustom Pond NWR was to protect one of southern New England’s least developed coastal ponds, there was also the opportunity to secure the piping plover colony on Moonstone Beach. Which raises the issue of compatible use.

    Recreational activities are allowed on NWRs when they are compatible with the use for which the refuge was created. So people can still use Moonstone Beach as long as the plovers are not disturbed, and to prevent that the Service restricts use through signage, fencing, and enforcement patrols. Elsewhere on the refuge, compatible use is limited to what people can do by walking. No motorized vehicles, and stay on the trails. Why? To maintain the ecological integrity of the refuge.

    With this thinking, I submit that hunting is not a compatible use. Like it or not, deer are part of the upland ecosystem at Trustom Pond, and there has never been any suggestion (until now) that deer will consume all the woody vegetation except for a few exotics. To suggest, as the Service did in their proposal, that the reason for the increase in invasive plants is because the deer are consuming all the native woody plants is flatly untrue.

    NWRs are created, and mostly managed, to protect natural ecosystems and natural processes. Predator/prey relationships are natural processes. Resource managers insist that both deer and coyotes are “problem” species, both needing control in certain situations, and in their view that control is the function of hunting. But why not, on large protected refuges such as Trustom Pond, where the presence of humans is limited, let the natural predator/prey relationship between deer and coyote play out? That would be a smart decision in a management program that is based on science, but unfortunately management decisions today are not made by scientists. The decision to expand hunting at Trustom Pond, and the other RI refuges, is a political decision. Science had nothing to do with it.

  6. The issue to look at is not whether hunting is good or bad but how is it managed. If we let the deer go unchecked, they will cause ecological collapse. Are we doing it just because people want it, or is it necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
    Mark Dennen

  7. Mr. Enser,

    Despite your expertise, I seldom agree with your conclusions about deer and hunting. This year is the first time in years that I’ve seen an unbrowsed Lady Slipper orchid (one). The understory is either absent or of minimal value to wildlife.
    So when refuge staff go out and call for migrating saw-whet owls, all night long, does that significantly reduce the value of the refuge? Limited hunting is a lot less intrusive than that.
    How about Parker River NWR? Hunting is an opportunity there, yet it’s one of the best places for observing migratory everything!
    So I’ll stand by saying that, in this circumstance, hunting is a compatible (and necessary) use given that most of the lands surrounding the refuges are unhunted (with only minimal predation) and are also a major part of the problems for the refuges.
    The timing of the hunting seasons, limits on the number of participants, and where the activity can occur makes the effects minimal.
    Both non-game species and habitats benefit substantially from the direct or indirect contributions by hunters.

  8. How is the right to discharge stormwater as described in the warranty deed, "their neighborhood rights as abutters for access onto and across the refuge"? I believe this to be a "stretch" and far more harmful to the natural habitat values of the refuge than limited hunting by "thirty-five strangers shoot(ing) those bows". I’m repeatedly saddened when decisions are agenda-driven or emotionally-driven. It appears to me that the rights of the abutters are no greater than any other refuge user and "creative interpretation" of law will determine the final outcome.

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