CHATHAM – Kimberly Robbins has nothing against hunters. Growing up in Chatham, it was accepted that hunting was a common pastime.
“But it seems like it has increased significantly in the last few years,” Robbins, now a member of the town's park and recreation commission, said recently. And that increase has led to an escalation in conflicts between hunters, specifically waterfowl hunters, and those who walk the beaches during the off season.
“You can't go anywhere without hearing the shots or getting approached, like I was personally on a public beach, and told that they're hunting so stay away,” she said. Hunters she has encountered have been polite, she added, but she's also run into people walking on the beach who have been distraught over hearing gunshots and felt they could not walk on the beach due to hunting.
During the duck hunting season that ended last Saturday, there were several reports of encounters between beach walkers and hunters. None were serious, but they highlight what can happen when different interests share a limited resource.
Hunting is regulated by state law and there are no prohibitions against hunting on public beaches. As conflicts escalate, however, park and recreation commissioners agreed Jan. 10 that it may be time to consider rules for hunting in some areas.
Beach and park rules regulate everything from kite flying to dog walking but are silent when it comes to guns and hunting, Robbins said.
“I'm not looking to ban hunting,” she said, “but it really does need to be addressed.”
“This is definitely something that needs attention,” agreed park and recreation chair Meredith Fry, who said she can hear gunshots from her North Chatham home during duck hunting season. “But it's probably going to take some time,”
Duck hunting season this year ran from the weekend after Thanksgiving to last Saturday. While this is not high season for beach strolling, many local residents look forward to walking the empty winter beach. Hunters often seek water fowl at the edge of the water or just offshore, setting up conflicts from Lighthouse Beach to the shores of Nantucket Sound.
One resident who asked that her name not be used said she ran into hunters past the South Beach beach shack just after dawn on Dec. 7. She told them she was walking behind them and received a snide reply, she said. A professional guide, in a boat just offshore, yelled at her and, she suspected, reported her as harassing the hunters.
If the town can't restrict hunting, she suggested that hunters put up signs warning beach walkers that they are in the area.
“I don't love hunting, but I understand they have a right to do it,” she said.
Guide Sam Lucarelli said he heard about that incident and a few others this season. The higher incidence of conflicts can be tied in part to more people staying in town during the off season, he said, rather than there being more hunters. He doesn't think clashes are inevitable.
“There's no reason for people who are duck hunting to obstruct people who are walking down the beach,” he said. When he sees people on the beach near where he has taken hunters, he notifies the hunters that people are nearby.
“If the hunting community engages in simple practices like that, it could ease the situation,” Lucarelli said. Massachusetts has strong pro-hunting laws, he added, and any activity below the high tide mark is technically under state jurisdiction.
“It would be problematic for the town to try to take any action that may be construed as hunter harassment,” he said. But there's room for conversation, Lucarelli said, adding the entire hunting community shouldn't be judged due to the actions of a few.
State hunting regulations also apply on the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, although waterfowl hunting is only allowed in the waters west of South Monomoy Island. Hunting is not permitted on the islands, said Refuge Manager Rick Nye. Commercial guides need permits; two registered this hunting season, he said.
Nye said there is sometimes confusion over refuge boundaries. He has received complaints about hunters on Crescent Beach, which is town property west of the refuge boundary.
Police sometimes receive calls from people unfamiliar with Massachusetts hunting laws, said Lieutenant Andrew Goddard. One call came from people walking along Ridgevale Beach. After checking the location it was determined the hunters were outside of any restricted areas.
State law prohibits hunting within 150 feet of a roadway or 500 feet of a house, although the latter restriction applies to “any dwelling or building in use.” Robbins questioned if that applies to unoccupied summer homes, which she sometimes visits as a real estate and summer rental agent. Goddard said police consider the restriction to apply to any building that is not obviously abandoned. He added that hunting is allowed private property if it is not posted with no trespassing signs and hunters obtain written permission from the owner.
None of the hunting-related calls to the department this past season were for serious problems, Goddard said. “Mostly it's been confusion” about the laws, he said. “To people not familiar with firearms or hunting, to have shotguns going off near you can be disturbing. But it's perfectly legal.”
It would be helpful to post signs that warn that hunters may be present on town property, Robbins said, like orange signs at the Bell's Neck Conservation Area in Harwich announcing that it's hunting season. Walkers need to make sure to wear bright colors so that they can be seen, she added.
Robbins was also concerned about the proliferation of spent shotgun shells on beaches. On one beach walk she picked up 20 casings. Resident Jerry Evans said he picked up a garbage bag full of casings and wadding around Morris Island last year. Biodegradable shells are available but tend to be more expensive, he said. Robbins suggested the commission could look into requiring biodegradable shell use when hunting on town property.
Because of the laws and interests involved, Select Board member Cory Metters, the liaison to the park and recreation commission, said the commission should seek advice from town counsel. “The hunting component is going to be a delicate discussion,” he said.