Deer-control debate in Westport begins calmly
The Representative Town Meeting launched its evaluation Wednesday of a petition calling for a deer-management program to be adopted in Westport, avoiding the controversy that has besieged debate over the issue in other area towns.
Three RTM committees -- Environment, Public Protection, and Health and Human Services -- convened to discuss deer control for the first time. The session was a forum for expert speakers and members of the public to offer their perspectives on how to control deer herds in town, but no formal action was on the table.
Among the invited guests and the public, opinion was split over measures the town might take to manage the local deer population. Greenwich Conservation Director Denise Savageau and former Weston First Selectman Woody Bliss testified that deer hunting had been successful in reducing the deer herds in their towns.
Laura Simon, the field director of the Humane Society's Urban Wildlife program, offered a different perspective, advocating a "non-lethal" deer-management plan. She recommended bait stations that spray pesticides on deer, and birth control, as the best ways to manage deer numbers and to reduce the prevalence of Lyme disease.
She acknowledged, however, that she could not cite a town in Connecticut that could serve as a "great template" for enacting a deer-control policy in Westport.
Kirby Stafford, chief entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, gave a mostly empirical-based presentation. He said Westport has about 30 deer per square mile, according to a 2004 aerial survey of the town conducted by the experiment station.
There was as much debate over statistics as about ideas at the meeting. Stafford cited data that suggested dramatic decreases in Lyme disease incidence rates could be achieved when local deer populations were reduced to eight per square mile. Simon, however, referenced studies indicating that reducing the number of deer did not lead to a lesser frequency of Lyme disease.
Deer's role in traffic accidents also was a recurring point of discussion point. Stafford said 3,000 deer-to-vehicle collisions are reported to the state Department of Transportation each year. Priscilla Feral, president of Darien-based Friends of Animals, however, asserted "the claim that hunting reduces car accidents is not solid."
Savageau emerged as an ardent advocate of a deer-management policy that includes hunting. She said an effective cull of the Greenwich deer herd had taken place in 2005, costing that town's residents about $40,000. She further defended deer hunting against claims that its backers have only commercial motives.
"It's not about hunting or not hunting," she said of deer control. "It's about wildlife management or not wildlife management."
Greenwich deer numbers have risen again since 2005, and further culls would be needed to manage the town's deer herd, Savageau added.
RTM members neutralized the potential for discord by limiting themselves to asking questions of the speakers, and not espousing personal positions on an effective deer-control policy.
Public contributions to the debate were similarly restrained and generally characterized by the discussion of data supporting a particular viewpoint. This tone represented a stark contrast to the scene Bliss described in Weston of protesters clashing trash can lids like cymbals to show their opposition to hunting.
A town ordinance prohibits hunting in Westport, and the RTM would have to approve a new ordinance to amend existing rules to allow deer hunting.
Public Protection Committee Chairman Richard Lowenstein said the next RTM meeting on deer control would take place in November. After several subsequent meetings, the three committees will submit reports and possible recommendations to the full RTM and to First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. Committee members did not specify a specific timetable for these actions, but they are unlikely to happen before year's end.