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Confronting deer control

December 21, 2010
By GEORGE J. BRYJAK, Special to the Enterprise

OH, DEER! A series about deer population, Part 3 of 3

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There are only two options for slowing or reversing the growth of deer populations: decreasing the birth rate or increasing the death rate. While hunting - increasing the death rate - has been the most often utilized strategy, the scientific community is trying to find an effective, practical and affordable contraceptive to control deer populations.

Article Photos

A bold deer stares down a photographer.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

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Controlling reproduction

Uma Ramakrishnan, of the Connecticut Department of Forestry and Agriculture, states that there are two basic methods for controlling female reproduction in deer: using immunocontraceptives and administering contragestation agents. A major disadvantage of immunocontraceptives is that does must be treated twice during the first year and given a booster shot in subsequent years. The disadvantage of contragestation agents (that cause spontaneous abortion) is that this strategy also requires treating does annually during the breeding season. In addition, the timing of this intervention must be just right.

"If treated early in the pregnancy, females will simply get pregnant again," Ramakrishnan says. "If treated late in the pregnancy, it is often dangerous to the health of the female."

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (Canada) is working on a vaccine that renders the eggs of does impervious to sperm. Canadian biologists have developed a "one-shot" vaccine that prevents impregnation but does not eliminate does coming into heat and mating. Mark Fraker, president of SpayVac-for-Wildlife, states that deer maintain their normal behavior; "they just don't get pregnant."

These birth-control strategies require capturing animals, and therein lies the problem. At a typical cost of between $300 and $500 per doe, capturing hundreds if not thousands of deer per targeted population is prohibitively expensive.

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Reduction via hunting and controlled kills

Historically, the size and growth of deer populations has been controlled by hunting. Ramakrishnan notes that this strategy has numerous limitations:

1. Because of high population density, hunting is not feasible or safe in suburban areas where a significant portion of the nation's deer reside.

2. Intermediate to low levels of hunting may improve overall deer health and, consequently, their reproductive output. Hunting often reduces competition for the surviving deer which then have access to more food, resulting in more fawns.

3. As noted, deer often learn to avoid hunting areas and take refuge where hunting is restricted or banned.

4. Deer will often remain "bedded" during the day and wait to feed after dark when hunting is typically prohibited.

5. Culling deer via sharpshooters is repugnant to many people. In 2008, marksmen were brought in to thin a deer herd in Essex County, New Jersey. The deer were baited with corn kernels, then shot. One member of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation involved in the cull received obscene phone calls, his car door locks were glued shut, and the doors spray-painted with the words "Bambi Killer." Another official was bombarded with hostile phone calls, letters and e-mails, including several death threats.

Leonard Lee Rue III, author of "The Deer of North America," has little regard for misguided, "let nature take care of its own" preservationists, individuals "who have never witnessed deer dying of starvation by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands. ... The preservationists have not seen deer being eaten by dogs while still alive but too weak to offer any resistance. ... They have not seen these things, or they would not be preservationists but conservationists." For Rue and many others, "deer are better served by biologists with facts than by people who act only from emotion and sentiment."

6. I will add a sixth hunting problem to Ramakrishnan's list - underhunting does. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, about 40 percent of adult does must be killed annually in the southern and western parts of the state JUST TO KEEP DEER NUMBERS STABLE. More than 40 percent must be taken if the deer population is to be reduced. With the number of hunters declining in some parts of the country, and hunters targeting bucks with trophy-size antler racks (often ignoring does), reducing the doe population by two-fifths or more annually via firearms and bows will be difficult if not impossible to accomplish.

Biologist Anthony J. DeNicola believes that the best way to reduce deer populations may be a combination of lethal culling and contraception. He proposes that communities vaccinate the most approachable deer in a target population "and kill all the others."

A fourth solution to the deer problem is relocating animals from heavily populated areas to regions where they are scarce. While this strategy may have been viable years ago, today there are few if any areas of the country that do not have deer in sufficient number. As one might imagine, the "capture, relocate and release" procedure is very expensive. In addition, the mortality rate of these animals is high.

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One man's solution

Emilio DeVito, an ecologist with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, argues the deer population in the greater New York City (tri-state) area must be driven down, "way down toward five deer per square mile in order for our forests to begin a slow recovery." DeVito offers the following deer-management strategies that could be applied most anywhere the deer population threatens the environment and hunting is permitted:

1. Offer tax credits or some monetary incentive for every female deer taken by hunters.

2. Mandate doe harvest requirements for landowners in return for lowered property tax assessments.

3. Provide economic incentives for local governments to initiate doe control programs.

4. Legalize the sale of local venison for food and hides.

5. Provide for the free butchering of venison earmarked for homeless shelters.

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A contrary view

Matthew Scully, author of "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy," has a very different take on reducing the nation's deer population via any strategy that calls for killing these animals.

"The solution is always the gun, or poison, or traps, and the divine mandate always money. Geese getting on your nerves? Wipe 'em out. ... Wildlife hindering development? Bring dominion to field and forest, exterminate the creatures, and bring on the new strip mall."

For Scully, it's as if the entire natural world exists only "to please the appetites of man, however ignoble, irrational, reckless. Anything that is there is there to be taken. If it's in the way, level it. If it dares to distract or inconvenience, run it off. If it adds cost, kill it." This vision of the natural world, he argues, looks at our fellow creatures as nothing more than "an array of pests, threats, resources, obstacles, targets, livestock, roadkill, racks and 'wall hangers.' ... Nowhere in this vision is there room for animals with their own purpose ... apart from the designs of man."

For Bloomingdale naturalist Ed Kanze, it is morally bankrupt to accept the annual killing of untold tens of millions of chickens, turkeys, hogs and beef cattle - and, for that matter, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans - for our dining pleasure with no pangs of conscience while embracing the "Thou shall not shoot deer" position.

"What we eat must die," Kanze notes, "If we don't kill deer, than we terminate something else. The most important things, I suppose, are to show gratitude and respect."

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George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale after teaching sociology for 24 years at the University of San Diego.

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