NEW MILFORD — An unusual hunt to rid a town cemetery of woodchucks that have caused damage to ancestral headstones was met with skepticism and concern.

However, the first day of a hunt to remove nuisance woodchucks from Center Cemetery ended without any being killed, and the cemetery’s supervisor decided to try trapping the animals instead.

Mike Sennello said a hired hunter using a crossbow shot at one woodchuck Tuesday but missed, so he decided to bait traps and set them along paths the animals use to travel among the gravestones.

“If the animals are not caught this afternoon,” Sennello said Wednesday morning, “I will have the traps out for the rest of the week after 4 p.m.”

“We discovered two of the woodchucks have moved on,” he added. “They may have been caught by the bobcat that is around or scared off by its scent.”

The woodchucks caused damage by digging under the foundations of headstones in the 17-acre cemetery, causing some stones dating back 100 years to topple. Some of the stones have had to be repeatedly reset, Sennello said.

Signs were posted in advance of Tuesday’s hunt at the entrances to the cemetery advising visitors that it would be closed Tuesday and late afternoons for the rest of the week.

The Center Cemetery, which is privately owned and has stones dating to 1719, was closed Tuesday for the hunt. A single hunter used a crossbow to try to eliminate about 15 woodchucks around the cemetery. A .22-caliber rifle was also used in one section Tuesday.

“There are several locations where woodchucks have dug under the foundations of headstones,” Sennello said. “The older stones don’t have the cement base under them, and they are being toppled. One stone that dates back 100 years has been reset several times.”

Sennello said he has tried baiting and trapping, “with no success.”

Sennello said he filled in around cemetery stones where the animals had dug and where the hunter shot at one woodchuck but missed.

The police department was aware of the hunt, and signs were posted at the Poplar Street cemetery to warn the public.

The hunt raised concerns with at least one New Milford resident, Sheree Surdam.

“I can’t imagine anything more horrible,” Surdam said. “Killing them makes no sense. Don’t they think other woodchucks will come? This is not a sustainable solution. Once again, we could make a compassionate decision on how to deal with a problem with wildlife, and once again, we’re not doing it.”

Christopher Vann, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, was skeptical before the hunt even began. He advised Sennello not to use rifles in the southern end of the cemetery since houses are within 500 yards of that area. He recommended using double-door traps, but said Sennello told him the woodchucks were “trap-shy,” since that method had already failed.

“I’m skeptical that crossbows will do the job,” said Vann, who said an arrow from a crossbow travels about 70 yards and not as far as a standard bow.

“You’d have to be very skilled and have a very accurate crossbow and be patient,” Vann said. “They’re very intelligent animals, and if they see a movement, they’ll go into their burrows and stay there for three hours.”

Vann said he understands Sennello’s need to eradicate the animals. He has heard of serious damage woodchucks have done. One woman lost her swimming pool when woodchucks burrowed under it so extensively it caused the water to leak, he said.

But since the cemetery is privately owned, owners have the right to hunt and kill the animals, Vann said.

“Woodchucks are attracted to open, grassy spaces,” Vann said. “Once they establish burrows in a cemetery, they can do extensive damage and their population grows quickly.”

Woodchuck culling falls under the small game mammal-hunting season and regulations set by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. There is no limit on the number of woodchucks that can be taken during a particular hunt. Hunting can be done between one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. Hunting season is June 1 to Oct. 9. Either a firearm or archery hunting license is required.

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352