Neighbors Feel Caught in Crossfire as Trustom Refuge Increases Hunting Access
August 20, 2020
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 [email protected]. Bucheit and Ohley are looking to expand their network of opposition.