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Hunting concerns mount

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:44 AM

Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Director John Scholtz said managed recreational hunts are scheduled in the 500-acre dune area for Nov. 17-18 during firearms season, and Dec. 8-9 during muzzleloader season.

And although the county parks staff held a public meeting in late August, some municipal leaders felt snubbed that they weren't asked for input.

Spring Lake Township Trustee Ron Lindquist said even though Ottawa County owns North Ottawa Dunes, the land is within Spring Lake Township and the Township Board should have a say in it.

“Right now, I'm not a very happy camper with Ottawa County Parks and Recreation,” Lindquist said. “They didn't inform the board. I don't think that was very polite of John Scholtz. He seems to have an agenda, and he's pushing it through and to hell with anybody else.”

Ferrysburg City Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg said council also should have been approached for input. Ferrysburg's Coast Guard Park is a parking and entry area for the 500-acre North Ottawa Dunes.

Sjoberg said she attended a collaborative meeting about potential hunts in March, but there has been nothing since then.

“What happened to the collaboration?" she posed. "They seem to have an agenda and they're not really listening to the community. I'm really most offended they didn't even come talk to us — come and talk about their science, what they were planning, how they were going to control the safety.”

Sjoberg and several other municipal leaders — including Lindquist and fellow township trustees Bob Shay and Judith Miljan — said they are concerned about the hunt's proximity to houses.

“I'm not necessarily anti-hunting,” Sjoberg said. “I know there's a place for hunting. I'm just not sure it's in a place surrounded by residential neighborhoods. I'm a process person and I feel the process has been violated.”

Lindquist said he has a lot of unanswered questions — including potential danger to residents and pets, possible increases in car-deer accidents, and coyote and wolf populations.

“I have not made up my mind whether or not I support culling, but I think as a courtesy they should have come to us,” he said. “I have not seen anything that would indicate any serious thought has been given to what the results of culling would be.”

Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash said he sought information earlier this spring from county representatives, wildlife experts and members of the Tri-Cities Safety Coalition, a group concerned about potential negative effects of a hunt. Nash said he set up meetings to hear all sides of the issue in an attempt to sort fact from opinion.

“The idea wasn't a formal township meeting or anything — it was an informational gathering," he said. "People kept coming to me and saying 'This is true, that's true.' One person says one thing and one person says another. I wanted to sort it all out.”

Township Manager Gordon Gallagher said Nash was within his rights to personally gather information without involving other board members, even though Nash's actions were scrutinized by the Tri-Cities Safety Coalition.

The Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Board hosted a public meeting in late August to discuss the organized hunt.

Lindquist insists the board should have been given the opportunity for input prior to the plans being finalized. Miljan also said the board and residents should have been given the opportunity for input.

“Residents should be furious and outraged whether or not they agree to controlled hunting,” Miljan said. “The collaborators and county have given them no voice.”

Miljan, who lives in North Holiday Hills adjacent to North Ottawa Dunes, said she is so concerned about safety that she will make sure she is not home during hunting weekends.

Scholtz said the park would be closed during hunting times and staff would stand guard in parking areas.

The township trustees raised concerns about residents who enter the dunes through their backyards, not thinking about the hunting schedule.

Shay, who also lives in North Holiday Hills, suggested the county also have a physical presence in neighboring subdivisions.

Despite his safety concerns, Shay said he is in favor of thinning the deer herd. He said he often sees deer wandering down his street and in his yard.

“I just don't know if this is the best way to go about it,” he said. “I don't know if it would be better to have professionals (sharpshooters) only, or limit it to bow and arrow or crossbow.”

Scholtz said when the county applied for a $3.9 million Trust Fund grant to establish the dunes area in 2004, managed deer hunts were listed on the application as a future park activity. (See the document, click the Related File at the bottom of this story.)

“It's not something that's a brand new idea,” Scholtz said. “It's four days, two weekends. It's a 500-acre property and we're mirroring what the state does with their hunts. We didn't really see where we needed to seek permission from Spring Lake Township, given all those factors. But I would be happy to talk to the board.”

Scholtz noted that the county allows hunting in more than half of its parks. He said Kirk Park in Grand Haven Township has little or no deer damage, but North Ottawa Dunes is showing ill effects.

“The reason we're opening it up for some limited deer hunting is we are concerned about the overpopulation of deer,” Scholtz explained. “There are impacts to the vegetation, and that's not really a debatable thing in our mind. There's a lot of misinformation that's being thrown around out there.”

Scholtz said the nearby residents would be notified by mail prior to the hunt dates. A "small number of hunters" (25-30 over the two weekends) will be authorized, he said, and they will be shown the boundaries and a 450-foot setback.

The Tri-Cities Safety Coalition called the county's deer management policy “misguided, biased and deeply flawed.” The group questions how county officials could deem a hunt necessary or know what it would achieve without first conducting an independent ecosystem impact study and a deer population survey.

Although Scholtz said he doesn't have deer population numbers, he said the impact on the park's vegetation is clear.

“Little tree seedlings just aren't there anymore,” he said. “The next generation of trees isn't going to be there at some point in time. It has effects through the whole ecosystem.”

Scholtz said residents of North Shore Estates petitioned the county several years ago to request a herd thinning.

Adjacent P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Norton Shores has hosted hunts for the past five or six years, Scholtz added.

“They're seeing positive impacts,” he said.

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