News

Verbal shots fired

Island County commissioners and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen listened for nearly two hours Tuesday night while hunters and non-hunting island residents vented their feelings about hunting and shooting on Whidbey Island, specifically on county property.

Sheriff Mike Hawley opened the meeting at Coupeville High School Performing Arts Center by asking for a show of hands of the hunters in the crowd.

Even he was surprised at the response. Nearly all of the approximately 150 people in attendance raised their hands.

Hunters claimed they were not the problem, that they all knew the rules and hunted safely. They blamed most of the problems on poachers.

Residents took a “not in my backyard” stance, and told of feeling like prisoners in their own homes, being awakened by gun shots well before dawn, and finding shotgun shells, garbage and even deer carcasses left on their property.

The town hall-type session turned into a debate as both sides stuck to their guns.

The county commissioners called the meeting after residents of Camano Island complained to Sen. Haugen of hunters near a school there. Commissioners held a meeting on Camano last week, but it was sparsely attended compared to the turnout Tuesday night.

The meeting in Coupeville was meant for informational purposes only, to give the commissioners a better idea of the scope of the problem, and to hear from both sides.

Hunters and residents alike were feeling the pressure of the increasing population on Whidbey Island.

Sen. Haugen said Island County is more densely populated than King County on average, and Assessor Tom Baenen said the county has experienced a 6.7 percent population growth in the last three years, adding 5,000 people.

“That’s bound to create areas of concern on both sides,” Baenen said.

Commissioner Mike Shelton noted that the county code forbids discharging firearms in county parks, but that was written when county parks were much smaller. Now the county has “vast areas” designated as parks, he said, thus shrinking the huntable land on Whidbey.

A map available at the meeting showed hunting and shooting allowed on just seven parcels of county-owned land on Whidbey, for 1,712 acres total. Several of those parcels, such as Kettles Falls and Greenbank Farm, have extensive trail systems which further limit hunting.

Dave Harrington, chairman of the Island County Trails Council, said putting hunters and hikers on the same trails was playing Russian Roulette. He proposed shutting down the trails to all but hunters during hunting season, and inviting hunters to help maintain the trails.

The hunting issue on Whidbey was stirred up when Greenbank Farm Management Group questioned the practice of allowing hunting in the county-owned woods above the farm. The area is popular with hikers, and farm executive director had heard from hikers with concerns.

Blankenship was the first to speak at Tuesday’s gathering, and she wanted to make it clear they were not against hunting altogether.

“I’m not saying wipe out everything,” she said.

Indeed, hunters and non-hunters alike found a few things to agree on.

“We all have one thing in common,” Chris Kinkel of Oak Harbor said. “We want safety — we want to do what we want to do, safely. This is a beautiful area for all to enjoy.”

One participant asked if there were any statistics that showed anyone had ever been shot in the woods. Hawley and the commissioners said no, they didn’t know of anyone who had been shot by a hunter.

Hawley said responding to reports of shots fired eats up a good deal of time and money for the department. More than 400 such calls last year cost $10,000 in dispatch fees. That is more than double the number in 1998.

While some participants suggested restricting hunting, Shelton said doing that could cause an explosion in the deer population, and an increase in the number of road kills.

“The deer population will be thinned one way or another,” he said. “There’s a very real issue with motoring safety.”

Statistics provided at the meeting showed an average of 120 to 140 deer killed every year on roads in the county. Records were kept for Bayview, Camano, Oak Harbor and Coupeville. The busy highway around Bayview had the highest number last year, with 70 deer killed.

The commissioners had no solutions for hunters or concerned residents at the end of the meeting, but they plan on continuing the dialogue.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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