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The deer divide at Mill Creek MetroParks

Official: Harvest exceeds expectations; Opponent: Pick nature over golf

Deer supporter Mickey Drabison, left, delivers petitions Feb. 5 to Judge Robert Rusu Jr. in the office area of Mahoning County Probate Court. Opponents of Mill Creek MetroPark’s deer reduction plan asked Rusu to remove the current MetroParks’ board of commissioners. About 10 deer supporters went to the courthouse to hand in the paperwork.

YOUNGSTOWN — As he waits for a ruling in his lawsuit against the Mill Creek MetroParks deer reduction program, veterinarian Donald Allen read the MetroParks’ recently released deer-reduction summary with a certain sport in mind: Golf.

Allen, one of the four plaintiffs in the suit, said the reason the MetroParks undertook the program that removed 204 deer from the parks between Oct. 1 and Jan. 28 was the MetroParks’ focus on improving the Mill Creek Golf Course, which the park website calls “two 18-hole championship courses.” They are just north of U.S. Route 224 in Boardman.

Thirty-eight of the 204 deer were removed from the golf course and surrounding area by sharpshooters.

Allen said he recalls that when the MetroParks replaced previous MetroParks executive director, Dennis Miller, with Aaron Young after Miller’s 17 years in the position, Miller said his “most meaningful accomplishments during my time with the MetroParks, I believe, were the improvements to the golf course.”

Allen said, “Aaron Young is continuing this mission of focusing on the golf course, to the detriment of the rest of the park and our beloved wildlife.”

The summary, written by Nick Derico, MetroParks natural resources manager, called the first year of the removal program “a success.” It involved 166 deer removed from various parks by hunters selected through an ODNR lottery and 38 deer killed by sharpshooters at or near the golf courses.

“Each portion effectively reduced deer populations within the targeted areas, while also demonstrating that the programs were conducted safely,” the summary stated.

It said the hunting part of the program “resulted in zero safety related issues being reported to ODNR or the MetroParks,” and the parks that were hunted “met or exceeded their projected harvest goals for the year.” In fact, compared to the 166 deer removed by hunters, the MetroParks’ goal was to remove 66 to 133 deer.

Allen said instead of focusing on the golf courses, “Return that land to nature and stop poisoning the soil to create pristine grass. Stop killing the beavers, river otters, deer, Canada geese and other creatures in the park. You want to play golf? Go down 224 to Kennsington (Golf Club) or any of the other numerous courses in the area. Boycott Mill Creek Golf Course!!!” Allen also posted the message on the Help Save the Mill Creek Park Deer facebook page.

In an email, Allen said during the 30 years he has lived adjacent to Mill Creek Park overlooking Lake Newport, “I have never witnessed more than three or four deer at a time, and I’ve walked my dogs often both north and south.”

Allen included a copy of a letter he wrote Oct. 26, 2023, to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, that referenced the MetroParks’ claim that the deer population in the park system was 387 deer per square mile, which Allen called “preposterous.”

Allen said he believes the 3,300 members of the Facebook page “will undoubtedly vote, “no,” for all further (MetroParks) levies until there is a change in administration. It is likely Judge (Anthony) Donofrio will lose many votes as well at reelection time.”

Donofrio and his magistrate, Nicole Butler, denied the four property owners who sued the MetroParks a temporary restraining order to stop the deer reduction plan before it started in October. Butler held a hearing in chambers with the attorneys in early February and has not yet ruled on the remaining issues in the litigation.

Allen included a copy of the response letter from the Attorney General’s Office, which stated that the Attorney General’s Office has no authority over “another elected official” and suggested that Allen “consult with an attorney.”

Allen noted that he personally was involved in one of the two incidents mentioned in the MetroParks summary involving injured deer: A buck was observed to have an arrow lodged in his shoulder off August Drive in Boardman, a short distance south of Shields Road, and just north of the Mill Creek Golf Course. The location is 1.5 miles from the nearest hunting area involved in the deer reduction program, Huntington Woods, the report states.

The deer later died and was recovered by the ODNR near Anderson Drive, about a mile south of Lanterman’s Mill, the summary stated, adding that it was “unclear whether the injury was a result of the controlled hunting program.” Hunters with permits for Huntington and Hitchcock Woods in the two weeks prior to the deer being seen were contacted and “none indicated they had wounded and not recovered a deer,” the summary states.

Allen said a resident called him about that incident, and he responded to the location. Allen said the buck was “too strong yet and fast on three legs to capture, so he apparently died of infection.”

The other deer was on Angiline Drive in Boardman near Hitchcock Woods and Hitchcock Road. A resident reported seeing the deer with a broken arrow in its shoulder area, the summary stated.

Tom Frank, county wildlife officer for ODNR Division of Wildlife, said via email to the Vindicator a caller reported the deer was limping but mobile. “At the time, I just called the caller back and asked if the deer was suffering or no longer mobile.” Frank said he did not receive a second call from the person.

Allen noted that the letter he wrote to the attorney general asked for the agency to investigate “misfeasance on the part of the executive director of Mill Creek MetroParks, Aaron Young.” Young is “not an elected official, he is a hire,” Allen stated.

When Young was asked for a comment on the summary, he said that the “deer management program that was implemented in 2023 was a success. As we identified in the previously presented deer management plan (see pages 26-28), deer reduction efforts will be an ongoing activity for the foreseeable future.”

ANOTHER VOICE

Chris Flak, another opponent of the deer reduction program, said the summary contained “opinion based information (that) served to fire up already angry citizens.”

Flak said she has a problem with the ways in which the deer were removed.

“Many ethical hunters who could have participated in the killings, stopped short here due to the lack of ‘sport’ involved,” she said. “The word ‘hunt’ implies that there is a skill and principle or code of conduct that dictate the manner in which animals are killed, otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a slaughter.”

She added, “We have several photos of maimed animals from Sawmill Creek Preserve that likely suffered for hours, maybe days before dying. Where do you draw the line that crosses into animal cruelty?

“Where safety is concerned, I’m very happy there were no human deaths associated with this hunt. We did have that potential in the way the hunting areas were marked. Signs read, ‘Controlled Archery Hunt in progress. Park is open.’ If the Mill Creek Park administration had concerns for the welfare of the community, they would have posted safe hours indicating when one may hike, walk the dog, etc. without fear of running into a weaponized hunter somewhere around the next corner,” she said.

“And, neighborhoods, especially those bordering the park, were not informed of the possibility of camouflaged hunters with a dead animal in tow, in their backyards,” she said. “Disruptions to deer congregations caused flights of panicked deer to run into unknown territory or roadways. We know of at least two deer that were killed on Route 224 during the evening hours that hunting was taking place.”

She noted that hunters were asked if they encountered other hunters or the public while hunting the MetroParks. Sixty-seven percent said they encountered other hunters, while 46% said they encountered nonhunting park users.

Flak said this would have been a good opportunity “to inquire about a potentially negative experience afield.”

The summary contained a paragraph stating that “Interactions between hunters and nonhunting park users were also positive,” “with little to no conflict” and that the MetroParks was “made aware of five instances via survey responses or phone conversations where a negative interaction with the public took place. “But overall these appeared mostly chance encounters where hikers found themselves too far off the designated trails or non-hunting park users entered properties while they were closed.”

Flak said she believes those “conflicts could be related to the poor sign posting.”

She said a listing of incidents handled by ODNR law enforcement, such as hunters cited for harvesting more deer than they had deer tags for and two injured deer “naturally absolves the park from responsibility where injured animals are concerned.”

She added, “Will the hunters who had been cited for various reasons be allowed to hunt again in the 2024-2025 season?”

Flak said “a lot of the ire about this hunt has come from ignoring and subsequent dismissal of public comments made at Mill Creek Park meetings. When citizens questioned the obvious exaggerated numbers of deer within the park, there was no discussion, no explanation and certainly no efforts to bridge the public relations gap.”

Flak said instead of park officials “congratulating themselves over the Deer Management Program and what they perceive as a ‘success,’ a learning opportunity was sadly missed here in their eliminating any chance of working with the public to create better relationships and bond with those taxpayers who only want the best for the park.”

She said members of the Save the Deer group “meet bimonthly to discuss what they see as lack of transparency, accountability and responsibility to the citizens of Mahoning County. We love our park and the culture that accompanies its history, beauty and traditions.”

She said, “For those of us who look at wildlife as a ‘gift,’ and a responsibility to protect and preserve, we are deeply offended by the actions of Mill Creek Park. She said some parks are designated “preserve” or “sanctuary,” but “there is no preservation or protection offered to the wildlife. This contradiction is deeply disturbing.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Ed Runyan at erunyan@vindy.com.

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