To hunt or not to hunt, that is the deer question
It is no coincidence the height of the white-tail deer mating season coincides with the start of the firearms hunting season in Connecticut.
Last week, the firearms hunting season opened in Connecticut and will continue through Dec. 9.
With no natural predators, deer have slipped out of their ecological niche and now thrive in Fairfield County suburbia.
In the absence of significant mortality, deer populations can double in size in two years, according to Howard Kilpatrick, a biologist in the Department of Environmental Protection's Wildlife Division.
Though non-lethal methods like fencing and taste-based repellents might prove successful in some yards, Kilpatrick said successful deer management ultimately lies with hunting. "Birth control is a possible solution for small, isolated, deer populations. It's not an option for deer in Fairfield County," he said. "It has the highest deer population in the state."
The DEP biologist said while hunting is effective for municipality-owned land, homeowner association-owned land or a nonprofit land holding organization, it will not be the solution for Fairfield County either.
And, while deer repellents like Deer Stopper can protect an individual plant from becoming lunch, they will not reduce the deer population, Kilpatrick said.
"As more lands have been opened for hunting, and as we continue to liberalize the hunting season and allow more hunters to harvest more deer, we've started to see a downward trend in deer population," he said.
In Fairfield County, there is no limit on how many deer a hunter can harvest and they are able to use bait to attract deer.
"There are now more deer harvested in Fairfield County than any other deer management zone," Kilpatrick said.
A study released at the beginning of the deer-hunting season by New York Medical College, sponsored by the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, suggested that deer munch away at a year-round salad bar destroying the landscape in the process.
Based on a 2003 deer damage survey of residential properties in Bernards Township, N.J., the study found the annual projected costs of landscape destruction to reach $13.4 million in Fairfield County last year.
Deer overpopulation was projected to incur as much as $17 million in damages in some towns and up to $1,520 per household last year.
The Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, a consortium that tries to raise awareness on the issue of deer overpopulation in Fairfield County, has recommended reducing the number of deer to 10 to 12 deer per square mile to lessen the economic impact on towns. Current estimate place the number of deer per square mile in Fairfield County at 60.
Reaching this target, however, poses the challenge of developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the deer population.
Although fencing and birth control are non-lethal remedies, hunting is considered the most effective means of removal that is both cost-effective and immediate by state agencies.
"I don't know that recreational hunting by itself is enough to reach the goal of 10-12 deer per square mile so that we have highly structural complex forest with a lot of biodiversity," Steve Patton, director of landscape programs at the Connecticut Nature Conservancy, said.
The DEP Wildlife Division recommends the use of regulated and controlled hunts to efficiently reduce and maintain deer populations.
In Weston, the Devil's Den Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, launched its first controlled hunt 10 years ago.
Patton said because there was an overabundance of deer in the preserve, the forest experienced a significant reduction in the amount of regeneration of forest and shrubs.
"We are now, 10 years later, beginning to see some changes in the reduction of deer," Patton said. "It takes twice as long for a hunter to find a deer to kill because there are fewer deer and we are seeing regeneration of herbaceous species in places where they did not occur 10 years ago because of deer over browsing."
Still, Patton suggests implementing further incentives for hunters in southwestern Connecticut. "Important for consideration is having a commercial market for venison," he said. "During a market season, hunters could sell their venison to a restaurant or a grocery in addition to providing deer to soup kitchens. That way they can enjoy a financial return for their hunting."
Deer hunting-related expenditures contributed significantly to the state's economy last year.
Deer permit sales generated $932,332 in 2008 and $840,606 in 2009 to the Connecticut General Fund, according to the 2009 DEP Connecticut Deer Program Summary.
Even more, Connecticut deer hunters spent an estimated $10 million on deer hunting related-goods and services in 2009.
Yet Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based Friends of Animals advocacy group, said hunting is actually losing its appeal in the state, with less than 1 percent of Connecticut residents who are active hunters. "Hunting is on the wane, and that's a triumph," she said. "Young people are opting out of hunting as a recreation, they have other things to do, with iPods and everything."
She said the roughly 30,000 registered hunters backed by the DEP, have a stranglehold on the way the state thinks about hunting.
"It's all a terrible propaganda campaign. They try to create animosity toward white-tailed deer," Feral said.
"I do not think deer need to be called overpopulated. There is an overpopulation of people. You can't continue to carve up their habitat and force them close to homes and then claim there are too many of them. It's outrageous."