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'Guns going off in their back yards': Woodside residents voice concerns over killing of deer in neighborhood

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For many Woodside Plantation residents in Aiken, waking up to see a deer in their yard is a wondrous sight.

However, since the S.C. Department of Natural Resources issued a permit to allow for "deer culling" by sharpshooting with firearms in the neighborhood, the only time residents may see the trace of a deer is when the animal's blood is left behind from a recent kill.

In 2019, the Woodside Plantation Property Owners Association voted in favor of harvesting deer in the area as a means of thinning the herd and hopefully reducing damage in the neighborhood. The cull was permitted to take place beginning the night of Feb. 5 after Woodside "satisfied the requirements of the City of Aiken weapons discharge ordinance amendment" in the form of paying a $6,250 fee.

Since the initial announcement, several Woodside residents have voiced opposition to the plan and have spoken out against the cull in public and private meetings.

City to discuss deer culling issues at Friday meeting in Aiken

Aiken City Council gave final approval Nov. 11 to the culling process with the passage of an amendment allowing the shooting of guns within city limits for "authorized and regulated wildlife culls." The vote was 6-1, with council member Ed Woltz being the lone dissenter.

District 5 City Council member Andrea Gregory, who represents part of the Woodside area in addition to District 4 Council member Ed Girardeau, described the deer-culling amendment as an opportunity to "open up an avenue for wildlife management" at the Nov. 11 council meeting. 

"This is a pathway forward to handle scenarios that become issues with wildlife," Gregory said. 

Sixty deer had been killed as of Wednesday, according to a city official. 

'Guns going off in their backyards'

One issue some residents of Woodside are concerned with is the use of guns close to residential areas.

Photos taken by residents show blood on the ground where deer have been killed near homes and facilities that are frequented by residents. 

Before the cull was allowed to begin, Terry McGrath, who lives in Woodside, reached out to Diana Peters, president of administration for Woodside, in an email dated Jan. 24. 

In the email, McGrath wrote there were "decibel levels in place that would have to be addressed."

"The insanity of shooting high-powered rifles in a densely populated area, day or night, from stationary (locations) or vehicles, is wrong on so many levels," McGrath wrote in the email. "The growing number of residents with children certainly do not need to fear the safety of the home, in addition to their schools."

McGrath echoed those sentiments at a private meeting of concerned residents Feb. 1 in the Woodside clubhouse.

"People get home late or they're out walking their dogs," McGrath said at the Feb. 1 meeting. "What's to stop a bullet from coming their way?"

Also at the Feb. 1 meeting, resident Debbie Hitchens said the sound of gunshots could especially be damaging to children, who are "threatened with gun violence" every day.

"These kids take 'Stop the bleed' classes and go through active shooter drills," Hitchens said. "How are they going to feel safe at home with guns going off in their backyards?"

Ecological impact concerns

Another aspect to the deer culling residents fear is the ecological impact that could transpire.

Coyotes and foxes, particularly, were targeted after previously being considered "a problem" in 2005.

Coyotes have hardly been seen in Woodside now, though red foxes have begun making a small comeback in the last few years, Hitchens said.

"It starts with deer, but where does it end?" Hitchens asked at the Feb. 1 meeting. "What you see is from Mother Nature, and she will take back with vengeance."

Hitchens said she has witnessed only two incidents of deer damaging property in the last three years, including an incident involving a deer jumping over a fence, impaling itself and another when a deer bolted through a patio door.

Hitchens said those incidents are just an expectation of living so close to nature.

"We have to figure out how to homogeneously live among ourselves as well as the creatures out there," she said.

Beverlie Hunter has lived in Woodside since 1993, and said Thursday she has not seen "such an uproar" of anti-deer movements until the recent culling. 

"It has hurt a lot of people," Hunter said. "We don't see many deer at all. I have never seen more than a family, and even that's rare."

Hunter did address City Council at a Jan. 13 meeting on the deer cull.

"This will be a slaughter," Hunter said at the meeting. "I wonder how many people who started this at Woodside will be there to watch this slaughter of deer that have done nothing but eat a few plants. I find it sick to have grown people sitting up here talking about killing deer so peacefully, and so mathematically."

Hunter said Thursday that she was "strongly considering" moving from Woodside due to the violence.

"I've lived here a long time, and I've never seen this kind of fiasco," Hunter said. "I just can't stand this neighbor against neighbor that is happening."

McGrath and Hitchens have both reported hearing gunshots outside the designated culling period of 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. during "specific days" Sunday through Thursday. 

Aiken Public Safety responded to the reports but were unable to locate the source of the shots, according to Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh.

How did Woodside get here?

Documentation shows that Folk Land Management Inc. conducted a deer spotlight survey on the nights of Nov. 19 and 20.

"A total of 113 deer were recorded during the survey with a density of 5.7 acres to deer recorded on Nov. 19, and a density of 5.2 acres per deer on Nov. 20," according to an email sent to Charlie Call, president of the Woodside Plantation Property Owners Association, from S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal on Dec. 9.

The deer density recorded each night indicates a high population of deer on the Woodside property, Harrigal wrote. 

The deer density is comparable to some of the deer densities found in other gated communities in Bluffton and Hilton Head Island along South Carolina's coast, he wrote. 

The Woodside Plantation Property Owners Association conducted two online surveys, followed by one formal ballot vote to determine the extent of the deer issue with Woodside residents, according to Woodside Plantation Board of Directors member Mary Shultz in an Aiken Standard guest column dated Sept. 4. 

The first online survey was conducted in October 2015 with results indicating that "there was not enough support or reason to pursue any additional actions," Shultz wrote.

The second online survey was conducted in May 2018, and the survey provided "significant evidence of a growing deer herd problem," Shultz wrote.

"Following that survey, a town hall was conducted with property owners to discuss the results of the survey and to determine the next steps. Following the town hall, we hired a company to conduct a deer count," Shultz wrote.

The official ballot saw 1,330 votes cast "for the approval to conduct a deer harvest" while 746 voted against harvesting deer, Shultz wrote.


What's next for deer cull?

City officials are planning to discuss proper post-culling clean-up with parties involved with the Woodside Plantation deer culling on Friday.

A private meeting is planned and meant as a regroup to "make sure that everything that was articulated and stipulated in the management plan is enforced and played out," and that proper safety measures are in place, Gregory said Wednesday.

"The safety of our citizens is at the forefront of this whole thing," Gregory said.

On Thursday, Council member for District 4 Ed Girardeau said he too was concerned with the recent deer culling cleanup issue.

"Everybody's safety is the utmost importance, and we want to be sure about that more than anything," Girardeau said.

Girardeau said he had not been to the Woodside post-kill sites yet, but had seen the pictures.

Woodside residents additionally will hold a Property Owners Association board meeting on Monday to discuss the culling. 

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