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Hunters get closer to homes
The wilderness that once covered all of Whidbey Island is going away. At the same time, the life and death game of deer hunting season -- once a wilderness activity -- is coming closer to home.
Bill Humphreys and his wife, Donna, found this out about a week and a half ago while working in their yard. Living on Edgecliff Drive in Langley, the Humphreys live a couple neighborhoods away from the countryside, so are used to having the wilderness intruding on their lives. Over the years, they've enjoyed watching deer and other wildlife make a home under their apple trees and in their shrubbery.
But when Donna found an 18-month-old buck shot dead in the couple's front yard recently, the life of the wild lost its appeal. The buck, shot in the midst of hunting season, had lived its whole life in and around the Humprheys' yard.
While they've always known something like this can happen during hunting season, the Humphreys were shocked that someone could have been hunting so close to their home. Bill Humphreys said he figures the deer was shot on nearby wooded acreage and wandered back to the place it considered home. Having guns fired so nearby bothers him.
"There is no shooting area around our neighborhood," he said. "It's gotten to be a little scary."
All of the city of Langley, as well as Coupeville, Oak Harbor and other dense residential areas in Island County are off limits to hunters at all times. But in recent years, reported incidents of hunting in neighborhoods have been on the rise as the county's population grows and wild areas legal for hunting shrink.
Since the general firearm deer hunting season opened on Oct. 12, the Island County Sheriff's Office has received a steady stream of "shots fired" complaints, as well as reports of hunters walking or driving through neighborhoods in search of game. Sheriff Mike Hawley said hunting season is more and more bringing hunters and non-hunters together near homes. It's a dangerous situation that is only getting worse with each passing year.
"It's increasingly becoming a problem," Hawley said last week. "The bottom line is we're getting to the point where (hunting) is becoming impractical."
Hunting is legal in Island County on public lands designated for it, including Department of Natural Resources land along Lone Lake Road. It is also legal on private lands where land owners permit hunting. However, Hawley said, just because it is legal does not mean it is safe. Where the boundaries of these lands abut neighborhoods, there is a safety concern.
Few hunters who violate the rules are caught and prosecuted in Island County, often because they are only heard, not seen Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said the last hunting-related prosecution he remembers happened prior to June 1995, when he was a deputy prosecutor with the county.
Many of the incidents reported to the sheriff's office occur in rural areas where houses are clustered here and there. Aristana Firethorne, a rural Clinton resident, said she has been worried by hunting near her home for years. Deer are occasionally killed in neighbors' yards, something Firethorne said worries her when it comes to the safety of her children. When they play in the woods behind her home or even in the yard during the fall, they are vulnerable.
"I don't want anyone coming onto my property with guns at all," she said.
Depending on how the county grows in the future, her wish could come true. The Island County Board of Commissioners is the final authority on whether hunting occurs in Island County, event though the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife set hunting seasons and regulations.
Hunting is a contentious issue in Island County, something county Commissioner Mike Shelton knows well. A 32-year Whidbey Island resident, Shelton remembers when a previous set of commissioners outlawed rifle hunting in the county. Though he and his fellow commissioners hold authority over hunting in the county, Shelton said he believes the sport's future will be decided in large part by the hunters themselves.
"Hunting in Island County is not as prevalent as it used to be," he said.
Citing himself as an example, Shelton said he has not hunted on Whidbey Island for 25 years because he believes it lacks significant areas in which to track and shoot game. That is unfortunate, he said, since he believes the unchecked growth of the county's deer herd will become a problem, both in terms of the health of the deer and the safety of motorists. Shelton said he believes more deer are killed collisions with automobiles than by hunters.
Among the commissioners, hunting within the county has not been a significant discussion issue in recent years, Shelton said.
Firearm hunting season closes statewide on Nov. 17, with the exception of muzzleloaders.