Opinion: Westport deer -- a special case

With no natural predators, the deer population has grown from an estimated 12 -- yes, 12 -- in all of New England in 1896 (following the years of land clearance for farming) to approximately 150,000 today. The latest survey conducted by the Wildlife Division of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in January 2009 estimated an average 62 deer per square mile in Fairfield County that covers 625 square miles. (Okay we'll do the math -- 38,750 deer.)

Almost every town in Fairfield County has some sort of deer management program or committee discussing such a program -- except Westport. Now, there is a new initiative -- a citizens' petition -- that is asking the RTM and the first selectman to take action to develop and implement a plan to control what the Audubon Society has described as a "public menace."

The following is intended to provide Westporters with specific information to help them formulate their own opinions:

Lyme disease -- history

First appearance. The symptoms of Lyme disease were identified among a cluster of young patients in Lyme, Old Lyme and East Haddam in 1975. A year later a biologist in the DEP identified the deer tick that carried the disease and a few years later the popular name for it was coined.

The deer tick or black-legged tick. The ticks have a two-year life cycle. The adult ticks feeds on deer blood and as a result the female becomes fertile and finds a mate on the same deer. The tick drops off and lays 2-3000 eggs that develop into larvae and then nymphs that feed on the blood of small animals such as mice or birds. These small animals are frequently infected with the Lyme disease bacteria and transmit it, through their blood, to the tick. Later in the second year, the nymphs molt to become adult ticks and the cycle repeats on the deer.

The role of deer in spreading the disease. White tailed deer are the principal host for the adult tick. They do not themselves become infected with Lyme bacteria but they can carry as many as 100 ticks during peak activity and they provide the perfect environment for reproduction. The deer range widely through habitat ideal for the ticks' well being -- our forests, shady forest boundaries and back yards. The eggs hatch on the ground and the immature ticks develop and attach themselves to blades of grass and, with their front legs, seize onto any passing warm blooded creature. If that creature is a child or an adult or a family pet, and if the tick is infected with the Lyme bacterium, the disease may be passed along.

So, while deer are not the only carriers of infected ticks, they are essential to the successful reproduction and completion of the life cycle of over 95 percent of ticks. They are also by far the largest distributors of ticks -- just compare the acreage through which they roam with that of a mouse.

Effect of reducing the herd. Our state professionals have shown that, by reducing the density of the deer herd to around 10 per square mile, the breeding cycle of the tick can be very significantly cut. And thus the incidence of Lyme disease can be reduced from the epidemic status it has today to only the occasional case. From experience in Maine and Massachusetts, any reduction in deer densities can be helpful in reducing risk. Similarly, as deer densities go up, risk increases.

Controlling the herd -- state hunting regulations

To control their deer numbers all other towns in Fairfield County make use of the bow hunting season that runs annually from mid-September until the end of January. The issuance of licenses is tightly controlled by the State DEP.

There have been no accidents during controlled deer hunts in residential communities.

In the past 10 years, Connecticut hunters have provided over 41,000 pounds of venison to food charities -- some 164,000 meals for the needy.

What about Westport?

Westport's "No Hunting" ordinance. In 1933, the Connecticut legislature gave special powers to Westport to determine when and where hunting could occur in the town. In 1971, the Westport RTM passed an ordinance that banned any form of hunting except of "vermin." Note that this ordinance was passed before the date that Lyme disease was identified. Greenwich had a similar ordinance for town land and amended it in 2007 and has since implemented a management program.

Other considerations. The damage done by the deer to our landscaping, our native species, and our forest understory is extensive. And the incidence of road accidents involving deer is well documented and costly both in terms of personal injury and money.

Action. If we want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy our forests or our parks or to play on our lawns without risk of dangerous infection, if we wish to maintain our gardens as places of beauty and recreation, if we wish to minimize the possibility of life threatening collisions on our highways and to join our neighboring towns in confronting a menace, it is time to take action.

Westporters are encouraged to express their views to their RTM members -- remember there are nine districts and each has four members. These are our legislators and they need to hear from us. What Westport needs is a safe and effective program, developed with the assistance of the State DEP, that will incorporate the best and safest ideas for a town of our size and characteristics, drawing on the experience of professional deer managers.

Any elector who would like to add his or her name to the petition can do so electronically by logging on to www.ipetitions.com/petition/westportdeer

Peter Knight is not affiliated with any professional organization and does not hold any office with any town government; he is just a "concerned citizen."