Review of Westport's deer hunting ban proceeds quietly

Photo of Paul Schott

Avoiding the controversy that erupted last month, the Westport Representative Town Meeting's Environment, Public Protection, and Health and Human Services committees ended their initial review of the town's deer-control policy Thursday night.

The committees -- which have not taken a stance on the hunting issue, which has also triggered sharp debate in area communities -- now move to a new phase of the review that will include analyzing testimony and drafting a plan of action.

Committee members heard testimony from Allen Rutberg, a professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Rutberg talked about the implementation and effects of birth control for deer, focusing on several projects he had led with staff from Cummings and the Humane Society of the United States during the past two decades, including programs on Fire Island, N.Y. and Fripp Island, S.C.

Contraception was delivered at each location, he explained, using the PZP vaccine, a pig protein that blocks parts of the reproductive process in does. A version of PZP that lasted for one year was administered at Fire Island using dart guns. On Fripp Island, a "one-shot" version of the vaccine that used time-release pellets to last for two to three years was injected into does by project workers. Does on Fripp Island were also tagged, so they could be tracked for accurate data collection.

The vaccine produced noticeable results in each trial, Gutberg said. On Fire Island, less than 20 percent of does that were treated produced fawns the following year. This trend was accompanied by a 50 to 60 percent decline in the local deer population during an approximately 10-year span. On Fripp Island, the one-shot vaccine had produced an 80 to 90 percent drop in fawning rates.

The health and safety of PZP were not in question, Gutberg said.

"If the vaccine had any really bad effects, we would know about them by now," he said. He said no humans had been injured during any of the trials.

Rutberg said the costs of deer birth control were not inconsiderable. While remote darting of the deer cost only about $80 in the Fire Island program, capturing each deer for vaccination and tagging on Fripp Island cost more than $500.

Trials of a cheaper, dart-administered one-shot vaccine had begun, he said, but data were not yet available for that version.

Funding these deer birth control initiatives had mainly come from non-municipal sources such as private donors, community funding, as well as the federal government in the case of the Fire Island program.

Recognition of local factors would be crucial if Westport were to start a deer birth control program, Gutberg added. Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection regulations would likely mandate that does be tagged for a Westport birth control initiative. But, from a safety standpoint, not all deer in Westport could be tagged. The process would be infeasible near the Merritt Parkway, for instance. Gutberg explained that deer took about five to ten minutes to go down after being struck by the tranquilizer guns needed to capture them, and they could conceivably stumble onto the highway during that time.

Gutberg told the Westport News that Cummings and HSUS staff would be available to run a program, should the town proceed with a birth control program.

But birth control would not act as a cure-all for deer population management, Gutberg emphasized. Reducing the incidence of Lyme disease, he said, would probably not be achieved through a conventional PZP program.

Following Rutberg, Bull's talk did not advocate for a specific strategy or program, but instead focused on the ecological impact of local deer herds.

"Deer have basically eliminated a lot of our native shrubs, wildflowers, and herbs," he said. "Because of that, they are eliminating or reducing the habitat for a lot of our ground-nesting birds."

The calm tone of Thursday's meeting contrasted last month's hearing on the issue, which was disrupted by an argument between RTM members Dick Lowenstein and Amy Ancel, relating to the latter questioning the credentials of a speaker at that meeting.

Public comment was similarly restrained, with the handful of attendees who spoke urging committee members not to overturn the town's hunting ban, which has been in effect since 1971. Since a special act was passed by the state General Assembly in 1933, the town has had state approval to regulate hunting within its borders.

The hearings on deer management began in September in response to a petition submitted by Peter Knight with more than 200 residents last May calling on the town to draft a new plan to manage the size of the local deer herd.

Following the meeting, Knight told the Westport News that he was not pushing for the town to adopt a specific deer- control policy. But if the town's hunting ban were lifted, he said he would "lean towards" controlled hunts with sharpshooters.

"I do not believe sport hunting--definitely, not rifle and probably not bow-and-arrow hunting--is appropriate for a town like Westport," he said.

Knight also recommended that the town engage the counsel of the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance in its review of its deer-control policy.

The RTM panels will hold another joint meeting next month to begin their analysis. That session will be open to the public, but comments from the audience will not be allowed.

Committee members have indicated that any legislative action on the town's deer-control policy is not likely for several months.

With "act one, scene three," of the proceedings completed, Lowenstein said committee members' objective is to finish the review during the current RTM legislative session.

Any changes to the town's deer-control policy would need to be approved by the full RTM.