Editorial / Thinning the herd is only real remedy for deer woes
After a year of study, the Representative Town Meeting last week overwhelmingly asserted that Westport must do a better job managing a dense deer population that is defoliating suburban backyards, causing traffic accidents and contributing to the spread of Lyme disease.
A sense of urgency was generated when First Selectman Gordon Joseloff almost immediately issued a call for volunteers to serve on a new Deer Management Committee.
But in the state's only town where deer hunting is banned, we are eager to see just how the panel proposes to "manage" a herd that state wildlife officials say is far too large.
Since deer don't attend public schools, don't register to vote and don't return those pesky census questionnaires, nobody really knows their population in Westport.
The state estimates Fairfield County has about 60 deer per square mile -- three times the statewide average. With Westport's roughly 20 square miles of land area, that would give us about 1,200 deer.
But wildlife officials quickly admit that counting deer in aerial surveys is an inexact science. Unlike hunters, deer don't wear fluorescent orange vests to be easily spotted, and they are -- speaking strictly figuratively in Westport -- moving targets. So in estimating population, state officials assume that for every deer they see from a helicopter, there's another one they don't see.
Still, environmental scientists agree that when urban deer populations grow beyond about 15 per square mile, problems for humans will result.
With populations four times that in Fairfield County, the evidence of serious trouble in Westport is both evident and undeniable.
Deer in Westport cause
The figure includes more than $7 million in damage to landscaping and gardens.
Countywide, damages total $180 million, including $124 to plantings and $46 million for tick control and treatment of tick-borne illnesses, the report states.
Some 18,000 deer a year are fatally struck by vehicles in Connecticut, state officials say, causing $28 million in damage to vehicles. It is particularly dangerous on the Merritt Parkway, where high speeds, narrow lanes and dense foliage nearly to the roadways often mean multi-car crashes when a deer bolts from the trees into traffic.
Connecticut has the nation's highest incidence of debilitating Lyme disease, and deer are the primary host of the tick that carries the Lyme bacteria.
Although some Westporters urged lifting the town's 40-year-old ban on deer hunting, the RTM took that possibility off the table. The only meaningful relief for Westporters would result from reducing the herd.
The state Department of Environmental Protection's 26-page booklet "Managing Urban Deer in Connecticut" devotes 16 pages to herd reduction -- more than 60 percent of the text.
The RTM action grew from a residents' petition that called on the town to draft a new plan for controlling the heard, and the lead petitioner has urged the town to rely on the expertise of state environmental officials.
Those officials are proponents of thinning deer herds by hunting. Its deer-management guide advises: "Hunting results in immediate removal of animals from the population, is cost-effective and is the principal management tool used by all state agencies to manage free-ranging deer."
Separate studies by scientists at Cornell, Rutgers and Penn State universities all conclude that controlled hunting is the most effective way to control deer populations.
But with Westport's hunting ban, the only other methods to reduce the herd are relocation and birth control.
Relocation involves capturing, sedating and transporting animals to other locations, then releasing them.
It is astronomically expensive.
Several chemicals have proven effective in rendering female deer infertile. But the costs of vaccinating them range as high as $1,000 per animal and the drugs have to be injected again a year later. The town already has said it can't afford it.
So if herd reduction is impossible, what does "deer management" mean?
Technically, deer management includes public education, devices designed to frighten deer away from highways and deterring the animals from eating your shrubbery, tulips and vegetable patch.
Repellents that make plants smell bad or taste bad to deer are expensive and labor intensive to apply.
There are expensive electric fences.
There are expensive motion-activated speakers that emit high frequency sounds that deer don't like.
But those are not community remedies to a community problem, rather expenses for homeowners to fight their own battles.
We laude the town's intention to do something.
But without reducing the herd, we wonder if the town can do anything meaningful.