Humane management of Deer/Human Conflict

With hunting by a growing population, and more and more land being developed for agriculture and human habitation, the white-tailed deer population in New York State and much of the Eastern United States declined to a low toward the end of the 1800’s. But in the 1900’s, with a growing number of people with money and a desire to hunt deer, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was implemented with its policies to promote more deer, along with virtual eradication of predators in areas of human habitation, the deer did indeed rebound. The concept of deer population management, primarily through the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) for the State of New York, has always been based, in large part, on making deer available for hunters.

Deer are browsers, preferring somewhat open areas. The forest provides shelter, but in a heavily wooded area the grasses and brush under story do not thrive in the low sunlight. In woodlands, deer prefer areas where many of the trees were burned down and the forest is regenerating with just the vegetation deer like. The same is true on highways with forests along the sides; the deer are browsing alongside the road because that’s where the grass and low shrubs are, making for serious risk of deer/vehicle accidents.

But urban/suburban areas have just the right combination of areas of cover with an absolutely scrumptious smorgasbord of gardens and shrubs. Deer in a specific area are basically a matrilineally-related group, where female fawns stay and young males are turned away at a year or two old. The adult males do not stay with the herd; rather they come to the herd of mostly females to mate during the rut, competing and fighting with other males for mating privileges. During the winter, the grouping behavior changes from warmer weather small groups of does, often only one or two with their fawns, to larger groups where sometimes a buck will be seen. Healthy, well-fed adult females can have two or even three fawns at a time, meaning that urban/suburban populations can grow very rapidly.

 

Human/deer conflict may start when deer munch on gardens and damage native undergrowth by over-grazing. Next, people begin to worry about the increasing risk of car/deer accidents and Lyme Disease. The whole issue of Lyme Disease is very complex and there are conflicting conclusions reached by various researchers. The “deer” tick is more accurately called the black-legged tick, as it has many hosts besides deer. The primary vector species is the white-footed “deer” mouse. There are many other small mammals and birds that may carry, but these mice are the primary vector. A vector animal is one that carries disease-causing microorganisms from one host to another. The ticks develop to the nymph phase in late spring and summer when they pose the greatest threat of transmission to larger mammals, including humans. In fall females ticks take their last blood meal before laying their eggs, again posing the threat of transmitting Lyme Disease. These ticks, along with Lyme Disease, are moving northward as climate change opens new areas suitable for the ticks. SEE  

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2582486/    Effect of Climate Change on Lyme Disease Risk in North America

http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/life_cycle_and_hosts.html      CDC  graphic of life cycle of black-legged tick

As of this writing, the village of Fayetteville, NY is planning to bait and kill deer. However, there are other communities which have taken a humane approach. Examples are Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and East Hampton, NY. 

This issue of how to manage deer/human conflicts came to a boil a few years ago in parts of the city of Syracuse and the Town of Dewitt.  Eventually, a Syracuse-Onondaga County Urban Deer Task Force was formed.  Their report came out in September, 2014.  The recommendations included:  Local government “should continue to work with wildlife experts, consultants, and the public to ensure that the deer management program is implemented safely, effectively, and humanely.”  And “… humane, non-lethal deer management methods – such as surgical sterilization – should be utilized whenever possible…”  SEE http://media.syracuse.com/news/other/2014/12/20/Deer%20task%20force%20report%202014-09-02.pdf

There is now research that surgical removal of ovaries, which is preferable to either chemical birth control or tubal ligation (tubal ligation leaves hormone production intact), in combination with mitigating deer/human conflicts can be effective within a defined area and population. There are many means of mitigating these potential conflicts including public education, landscaping plants that are less desirable to the deer and to the ticks, high fencing around gardens, signs and reflector technology near deer crossing areas, tick avoidance and ‘ticks tubes’ (a cardboard tube is stuffed with cotton embedded with a pesticide which the mouse uses to line her nest – this kills any ticks, and there appears to be a low risk of toxicity to the baby mice).

The deer are here; no one can turn back the clock and make them disappear. The local matrilineally-related herd deters other deer from coming into their area meaning that even if all or almost all of the deer were killed, others would take their place. Just as sterilization would need to be both funded and ongoing, so would any program of killing. For the safety of residents, children, and the potential for liability to the city, village or township, using volunteers to kill deer with powerful rifles or bows is untenable; professionals and security cost money. While the cost per deer is initially lower for killing, costs can be brought down for sterilization by several means, and a spayed doe has no more fawns whereas a fertile doe has fawns that would then be killed in a year or two in a culling program. In the meantime she has more fawns and her adult offspring do as well, meaning that a culling program has to keep spending money each year as well, changing the math of expenses. Furthermore, at least two animal welfare groups and some individuals have offered some funding for the Eastside Syracuse and neighboring DeWitt deer, but only for a non-lethal program.

We should move expeditiously ahead with a pilot program in that area!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sandra J. Porter was a Member of the Eastside Syracuse/neighboring DeWitt Deer Committee (2012 – 2013) and a member of the City-County Urban/Suburban Deer Task Force (2013 – 2014)

For updates and how you can be involved, contact her at sjporter@twcny.rr.com or (315)446-8409 (10 a.m. – 10 p.m.). Sandy is also available for speaking about this issue.

Sandy is the guest columnist for People for Animal Rights for this issue.

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