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Hunt or not to hunt in the woods

One symptom of shrinking open spaces on Whidbey Island is the increasing number of conflicts between hunter and hiker, resulting in an increasing number of calls to the Island County Sheriff’s Office. The use of guns in populated areas hasn’t yet boiled into a public crisis or resulted in accidental shootings. And Sheriff Mike Hawley wants to keep it that way.

Hawley is organizing a public meeting to bring hunters and other gun users together with hikers to discuss how both groups can use public lands safely.

“It’s a concern that has increased as our population has increased and public lands have decreased,” said Jan Smith, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. “It’s more of a case where we want to bring the public together because we have to talk about this.”

The community meeting will bring state and county officials together to discuss how hikers and hunters can coexist safely, to propose solutions, and hear ideas. State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen is scheduled to attend, along with all three Island County commissioners, state and county land managers, and state Department of Fish and Wildlife game wardens.

Vern Olsen, a member of the Friends of Greenbank Farm, says he thinks the meeting is a good idea. He’s concerned about the 200 wooded acres next to the farm which belongs to the county. Although it hasn’t been a big problem, he knows hunters have used the land in the past.

“More and more that area is being used as a place for people to hike and enjoy the trails and to have that area open for hunting would be a big mistake,” he said.

Goss Lake Woods, near Langley is another illustration of increased hiking and trail use. The state turned over 600 acres of land, which was open to hunting, to the county last spring. The county is developing a management plan for the land, which is expected to spell out whether hunting will be allowed.

Kirk Francis, with Friends of Goss Lake Woods, is promoting the idea of the dialogue between hunters and hikers, although he says he does not lean one way or the other. He said he’s urging both hikers and hunters to attend.

“It’s a good idea to talk,” he said.

Al Lindell, a former director for the Central Whidbey Sportsman’s Association, said he agrees that a good conversation is welcome, as long as people really do listen to each other. But, it doesn’t always work that way, he said.

“My experience is that people often get all worked up and then you see them trying to get restrictive laws passed,” he said.

The sportsman’s group strongly emphasizes firearm safety and hunter education, offering classes for people of all ages. Education is the key for hunters and non-hunters alike, he said, if both sides seriously want to understand each other.

Smith adds that fewer and fewer people are familiar with the culture of guns and hunting and that can lead to fear.

“Many of us are far removed from the day and age when dad and grandpa went hunting,” Smith said.

This leads to a lot of calls to the sheriff’s office reporting gunfire, even when the use of the guns is completely legitimate, she said.

Other complaints, such as stray bullets or shotgun pellets striking nearby houses, hunters on private property, or unsafe target practice are much more serious, she said, and need to be discussed.

One specific area of concern is on Camano Island, she said. A new school was built in an area surrounded by wooded land open to hunting. People get very concerned when they see someone dressed in camouflage and carrying a gun near a school, she said.

That’s one area where a specific proposal to prohibit hunting could be addressed, she said.

The community meeting will be held April 20 at 7 p.m. at the Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center.

“It’s not meant to be contentious,” Smith said. “It’s important to give everyone the opportunity to practice their form of recreation safely.”

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