When Fieldbrook resident Kathleen Manuel found a letter in her mailbox last month informing her a neighbor on her quiet cul-de-sac off Rio Road was planning to bring in bow hunters to kill deer on nearby quarter- to half-acre lots, she was incredulous.
“It just seems ridiculous to me,” she said.
A bitter argument ensued. Long, contentious comment threads developed on the neighborhood association’s Facebook page. Annette Grimm, the Hearthglow Lane neighbor whose letter ignited the debate, defended her efforts to get what’s called a kill permit—special permission to take deer out of hunting season—from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) in an effort to drive away what she said are unstoppably bold herds of deer that ravage her plants and, in the minds of many, present a health and safety hazard.
Grimm said she wasn’t sure about the kill permit option herself at first. “I’m a city girl,” she said. “My initial reaction was, ‘Whoa, people are going to have bows and arrows in my yard? What if they miss?’” She studied up, and was convinced it would be safe. But the fight grew so fierce that Grimm abandoned the idea of inviting hunters into her backyard.
The flap in Fieldbrook isn’t over—Manuel is trying to get the homeowners’ association there to ban hunting altogether—and it could foreshadow similar fights as Albemarle’s growing suburban areas grapple with a booming deer population. Because as Manuel and others were surprised to learn, the law is very much on the side of people like Grimm.
Suburban kill permits are nothing new. According to a 2011 DGIF report, Albemarle ranks No. 3 among counties with the highest number of permits, and a list of 116 permits granted to county residents in 2013 shows many of them are in residential areas. The list also indicates several developments, including Farmington, Ednam Forest and Glenmore, seek permits on a neighborhood level (calls to the permit holders there went unreturned). Less than half a mile from Hearthglow, two different residents have quietly been allowing bowhunters to shoot deer on their properties. The landowners said they’ve had no complaints.
It’s fairly easy to get a kill permit, explained Sergeant Steve Ferguson, a DGIF conservation officer who oversees Albemarle and several other counties. An official needs to confirm that there’s been deer damage on your property, but usually, homeowners get the green light, he said. If they’re in an area zoned rural—as are some neighborhoods within a mile of Charlottesville—they can use firearms to take deer; if they’re zoned residential, they’re limited to bows.
Ferguson said it’s effective. “In subdivisions where we’ve had this done, we’ve had people come back and say, ‘I couldn’t believe it, my azaleas bloomed,’” he said. And it’s safe, he stressed. An urban archery season has been in place in dozens of Virginia cities and towns since 2002, officials said, and there has never been an injury. Typically, homeowners work with experienced hunters, said Ferguson, and many residents never even notice deer being shot and removed.
But Manuel and some of her neighbors are alarmed by what they’ve learned about kill permits: Those who fire the arrows don’t have to be licensed hunters, they can shoot at any time of day or night and permit holders have no obligation to tell neighbors. She agrees the chance of somebody getting hit by the arrow of an experienced hunter is very low, “but people move to these neighborhoods with the expectation that it’s going to be completely zero,” she said.
Grimm is now rallying property owners in neighboring Carrsbrook to sign up for a kill permit. Many live less than a quarter mile from Hearthglow as the crow flies, but lots are larger there, and, Grimm says, full of deer that often wander over to her street to devour shrubs. But that brings up another issue: “Deer are really quick to learn where there’s hunting pressure,” Ferguson said. “If you have three acres and you hunt those three acres, they’re gonna move to the neighbors’.”
In other words, Grimm could end up making her deer problem worse.
“I really hope that’s not the case,” she said.