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Op-ed / Hunting for remedy to deer overpopulation in Westport, there is an obvious solution

Published 11:11 am, Thursday, January 2, 2014
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The Dec. 9 issue of Time magazine featured on its cover a beguiling doe -- Bambi's mommy, or perhaps great grand-daughter -- gazing at the photographer from a sylvan background. But the thrust of the accompanying article described how the nation's wildlife population in general, and deer in particular, has rebounded to levels that now demand action.

Deer population had increased by 800 percent to an estimated at 32 million. "It's time to shake off sentimentality and see responsible hunting through 21st century eyes" the Time story concluded.

On Long Island, the town of East Hampton is doing just that with its recently announced plan for federal sharpshooters to cull 2,000 to 3,000 deer in February. Proponents of humane treatment of animals have come out in opposition to this "brutal slaughter," but animal-rights activists should ask themselves if population control by slow starvation, vehicle hits or attacks on fawns by coyotes is really more desirable.

As for Westport, the RTM spent a large part of 2011 debating the issue. The ill effects of excessive deer were identified: the spread of Lyme and other vector borne diseases, deer-vehicle accidents, landscape depredation and forest understory destruction. Testimony from a wide range of experts and concerned citizens was heard. The RTM ended up in a cleft stick. On the one hand, it determined that there was "a need to control the deer population" but, on the other, that the town's unique "no-hunting" ordinance should be upheld. First Selectman, Gordon Joseloff, formed a Deer Committee, to which I was appointed. Its brief was to seek non-lethal ways to control the deer population. "RTM traps deer panel in Catch-22" the headline on a March 9, 2012, Westport News editorial said. Some days later Joseloff changed his instructions and allowed the committee to consider a lethal option.

One of the committee's first aims was to try to establish the size of the town's herd. A flyover census was taken on March 10, 2013, and reported sighting an adjusted total of 700 deer. Comparing this with an earlier census taken by the Westport-Weston Health Department, the committee concluded that the size of the herd was stable or even in decline. Nevertheless, it recommended that a "PZP" contraception program be introduced in certain areas of Westport; the Greens Farms Association was cited as a potential participant.

Such a program would require trained volunteers to creep through the town's open spaces or residential backyards to treat female deer by blow dart or air gun with either a sedative to be followed by contraceptive inoculation or darts pre-loaded with the contraceptive drug. The report claims that the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection would authorize such a program, but this was not confirmed. The promoter of the PZP program, veterinarian Alan Rutberg, spoke to the RTM at the hearings in 2011, but he did not meet with the full committee to answer essential questions about viability and cost.

A few days before Joseloff left office seven weeks ago, the committee presented its final report (available on the town website). My minority opinion that recommended a combination of limited (bow only) hunting and a professional cull -- the latter, deemed "hunting" by the town attorney and thus covered by the ordinance -- was rejected by the committee chairman. Rather than have my name on the report with which I did not agree, I resigned.

In my view, the committee, like the RTM before it, ducked the real issue -- that the deer herd needs to be drastically reduced. A contraception program alone will not do it. As the Time article stated, it "works only on captive populations. Without an enclosure, unmedicated deer mingle easily with the medicated ones and the result is more fawns."

Scientific studies conclude that a reduction in deer numbers below eight to 12 per square mile drastically reduces the ability of ticks to reproduce, and hence significantly impacts the incidence of Lyme disease in a community. The committee states that this hypothesis is "hotly contested" but, I suggest, only by activist animal rights groups, not by unbiased experts in the field. Westport covers an area of 22.4 square miles. At eight deer per square mile, Westport should aim to reduce its herd to approximately 180 deer. To achieve this, we would need to eliminate approximately 520 deer.

We can pursue the contraception program if we believe it can be effective and affordable. In addition, to obtain a more immediate effect, we can consider how best to allow hunting (bow or crossbow) in a safe and manageable environment -- just as our neighboring towns, such as Wilton and Weston, do. But to achieve a real reduction, we need to consider a sharpshooter program. Cost is a big issue but sometimes the unseen cost of doing nothing, in terms of individual medical expense, pain and suffering and environmental degradation, is even higher.

We have a new first selectman and 10 new members of the RTM. Let us keep the deer issue in the forefront of our concerns and align ourselves with those towns across the country that are confronting the question of man's relationship with wildlife in a realistic and sensible way.

Peter Knight was the lead petitioner of a petition signed by 300 residents that led to consideration of Westport's deer situation by the first selectman and RTM in 2011. He is an RTM member from District 8.