Local 12 Investigates: Hunters thinning deer population in public parks
CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Hunters are setting up kill zones in Cincinnati Parks, part of a program to thin deer populations.
But many people, including mothers, nannies and children, have no idea their children are playing near sites where arrows are flying in the forests.
Hidden high in the trees of Mt. Airy Forest, Ron Lech sits high on a stand, demonstrating his technique for bagging deer in this section he calls his “kill zone.”
"I like the vantage point," Lech explained. “We’re definitely the top predator.”
Lech is one of 158 bow hunters who are legally allowed to hunt deer in the parks as part of a program sanctioned by the Cincinnati Parks department.
As Lech explained his technique, a woman and three small children wandered through this section that’s supposed to be closed because of the hunting.
Lech, who has killed an estimated 60 deer in these woods, says it’s fairly common.
"You know, those kids are pretty noisy right now, so they're pretty easy to identify,” Lech said, adding that hikers and others often wander through his kill zone.
Lech says he takes more precautions because of the chance that people in the park may walk through.
“I'm more aware of the chance that people are going to come by in the park than if I'm on my own property,” he said.
“We expect it,” Lech explained. "It comes with the territory of being in a park."
Lech may expect it, but these sections are marked by bright red signs that are posted at trailheads and other entrances in to the wooded areas, clearly proclaiming, “DEER HUNTING,” “DO NOT ENTER” and “CLOSED.” Still, the signs are often missed.
At the play area at Alms Park, Adrian, a nanny, was closely watching two small children in her care. She had no idea that a hunting zone and red sign were in full display.
When she learned about the program, she was clearly concerned.
"It sounds a little dangerous. It sounds like something that shouldn't be near our park," she said.
SAFER THAN A CAR TRIP
The man in charge of the deer hunting program, Cincinnati Parks’ Wildlife Manager Jim Godby, says every precaution has been taken to make sure there is no harm to the public.
"Safety is paramount to Cincinnati Parks," Godby said, adding that in the eight years the bow hunting program has been in place, there hasn’t been one close call.
Godby initiated the bow hunting program eight years ago and, according to Godby, all hunters on the approved list have passed a mandatory safety class before they are allowed to hunt in Cincinnati Parks.
"We do the best that we can to vet these hunters that make sure we get the safest people in to our woods,” Godby said. “Your children are safer in these woods with one of these hunters in them actually than they are with you in your car going to the grocery store."
Cincinnati Parks' bow hunting program is far from unique. Hamilton County Parks allows deer hunters, too.
OVERPOPULATION OF DEER AND SMORGASBORDS
The reason for allowing hunters to shoot arrows in these parks is directly tied to deer population. Absent natural predators in these urban enclaves, the number of deer in the parks began to explode in Cincinnati Parks.
Thermal imaging revealed a startling number of deer in Mt. Airy Forest. In the 1,500 acres, the cameras captured 334 roaming in the woods that should be home to 35, and the deer were literally consuming the future of the forest.
“It's like a smorgasbord to them," Godby explained, pointing to the vegetation he’s in charge of protecting.
In some parks, distinct dark lines, called browse lines, revealed where hundreds of deer had chewed vegetation clean, from head to hoof.
"Between their browsing activities, which is eating parts of the tree, we don't have as many trees, small trees, as we'd like to take over for the future of the forest," Godby said, pointing to the forest behind him that still lacks the diversity needed to sustain its future.
Hunters like Ron Lech who hunt in the parks say they're performing a public service, one arrow at a time.
"By managing the deer herd, we're helping the ecosystem," Lech said.
While safeguards are in place, there is no doubt that hunters and people in these parks will continue to mix in the woods.
Godby insists the hunting can be conducted safely, but stops short of making any guarantee that nothing bad could happen, saying, "I don't like to use the word 'guaranteed' because nothing in life is guaranteed."