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Deer management study points to hunting as solution

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - June 19, 2006

More hunting is needed to check the rapid growth of the deer population in Connecticut, according to Howard Kilpatrick, a Ph.D. student in natural resources management and engineering.

Howard Kilpatrick, a Ph.D. student who studies deer management, shows the level of damage done by deer to an evergreen.
Howard Kilpatrick, a Ph.D. student who studies deer management, shows the level of damage done by deer to an evergreen.
Photo by Peter Morenus

Kilpatrick, who also works as a project manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection, draws his conclusion from a three-year study he conducted of deer management in Greenwich that was funded by a grant from the Town of Greenwich.

The town has one of the highest deer densities in the state, but because it is one of the most developed towns, the ability to hunt there is minimal.

“Many of the highest deer densities in the state are in areas where there is the least amount of hunting,” Kilpatrick says.

“In northern Connecticut, hunting is more of a tradition, so people give access to their land; but in southwestern Connecticut, there’s more property that’s closed to hunting.”

The number of deer in Connecticut has skyrocketed in recent years. They are increasingly regarded as a nuisance because of the damage they wreak on the landscape; the spread of Lyme disease from deer ticks; and the risk of auto accidents involving deer.

Although there is some opposition to hunting, people become more supportive when they are personally affected by deer, Kilpatrick says.

“We provide informational programs about the need to manage deer, but it usually takes personal conflict to change someone’s mind: They can’t grow a garden, for example, or their daughter has Lyme disease, or they hit two deer with their new car.”

Deer can live up to 18 years, and an adult doe generally gives birth to two fawns a year. “Populations can double in size every two to three years,” Kilpatrick says.

Although deer have a number of predators, including humans, coyotes, black bears, and bobcats, “none of these by themselves can control the deer population,” he says.

Based on his study, Kilpatrick recommends that towns develop area-specific deer management plans, encourage both gun and bow hunting, and provide more information to property owners about deer management and hunting.

Deer management plans need to target local areas, rather than a whole town, because of the way deer densities correlate with environmental and residential patterns.

Kilpatrick says the pattern of development in Greenwich makes it difficult to increase gun hunting.

“Because of state law that prohibits the use of firearms within 500 feet of a dwelling, we found that only 13 percent of the land in Greenwich can potentially be opened up to gun hunting,” he says.

Bow hunting, on the other hand, is not restricted, because of the limited range of archery equipment and because bow hunters tend to shoot downward from elevated tree stands so the deer won’t smell or see them. A missed shot hits the ground.

The study showed that bow hunting has slowed the growth in the number of deer in Greenwich. Without it, Kilpatrick says, the deer population would be escalating there.

In 2003, state law was modified to allow sharp shooting, a management technique that can only be conducted with a permit from the DEP.

Kilpatrick says Greenwich hired a sharp shooter, who killed 80 deer in four nights, but the total cost to the town, including additional law enforcement on the nights of the hunt, was high – $650 per deer removed – and the initiative was not continued after the first year.

“Removing 80 deer once from four town-owned properties doesn’t have much impact unless you maintain the program,” Kilpatrick says. “Any management plan must be long-term to maintain its effect.”

Another strategy for deer management is fertility control – administering contraceptives to adult does using a dart gun.

The cost is high, and in the first year the drug must be delivered twice to each doe, and once a year after that. New contraceptive agents have been developed that require only one dose for up to five years but these drugs have not yet been approved for commercial use, Kilpatrick says.

The Greenwich study included a poll of the community. It found considerable support for hunting (75 percent of Greenwich residents supported lethal control), yet many private owners are reluctant to provide access to their property.

Kilpatrick says property owners are more receptive if they know hunters have taken a safety course and if they – the owners – can decide where, when, and how hunting is allowed on their property.

“Hunters need to do a better job of communicating with landowners,” he says.

The study also found widespread (80 percent) support for fertility control, but revealed that few people are aware of its cost or whether it is effective.

When asked whether they were willing to pay for deer management, and how long they would be willing to wait for results, most supported a three- to five-year period.

“Whatever deer management strategies are used,” says Kilpatrick, “the more they cost, the less willing homeowners are to use them. If there are no noticeable results, support begins to decline within three to five years.”

Professor John Barclay of UConn’s Wildlife Conservation Research Center, Kilpatrick’s adviser, says the deer study project is a good example of the Center’s work, connecting students and academia, citizen groups, municipalities, and state agencies in ways that are beneficial to all.

Kilpatrick says that, as a result of the study, the hunting season in the southwestern portion of the state has been extended.

The DEP encourages use of the regulated hunting season as a method of controlling increasing deer populations.

It has introduced an incentive program, known as Earn-a-Buck, for hunters to increase their “harvest”: for every three does killed, a hunter receives a tag for an additional doe and a buck.

Kilpatrick says more than 60,000 deer hunting permits are issued in Connecticut each year, but the number has not increased since the early 1990s, despite the growing deer population.

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