Lacking a plan, Stamford racks up costs from deer overpopulation
Elizabeth Kim, Staff Writer
Published: 10:03 p.m.,
Saturday, August 28, 2010

They are some of the city's most heart-melting yet troublesome residents.

Around twilight, white-tailed deer emerge from the woods onto the grassy fields beside the Merritt Parkway. As they graze and softly trample along the edges of the road, they possess an almost eerie calm. Just several feet away, cars drive by at breakneck speeds.

Set against the orange hues of the setting sun, the sightings make for bucolic scenery. But they also signal the overabundance of the creatures, who even while doe-eyed, can wreak devastation in large numbers. In addition to causing car accidents and spreading Lyme disease, deer are proficient and destructive feeders of their surroundings. They chomp away at flowers, shrubs and native plants, transforming the ecology in their wake.

"It's a human-caused phenomenon, but meanwhile we have to deal with it somehow," said Erin McKenna, an associate planner in the city's Land Use Bureau.

One reason is their substantial cost to municipalities and residents. A study released last week by New York Medical College found the annual costs of deer overpopulation in Fairfield County to be as high as $17 million per town and $1,520 per household.

In Stamford, the total cost per year comes out to $11.3 million. Of that total, $7.6 million is from environmental or landscape damage and $2.6 million comes from the cost of tick control. Connecticut has the highest rate of Lyme disease, which has been linked to deer densities. Within the state, Fairfield County has the highest annual number of new cases of Lyme disease.

Citywide, there are an average of 61 deer per square mile, according to an aerial survey performed last year by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. The Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, a consortium that tries to raise awareness on the issue, has recommended reducing the number of deer to 10 to 12 deer per square mile, a number which yields relatively few cases of Lyme disease.

Reaching such a target, however, poses a challenge for Stamford, which has not developed a comprehensive strategy to reduce the deer population.

The issue is often controversial. Although sterilization and fencing are among the nonlethal remedies, hunting is generally considered the principal method of removal that is both cost-effective and immediate. This past July, state DEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette strongly encouraged communities to allow hunting during the regulated deer season. The state DEP requires all licensed hunters to have permission to hunt on private property.

Darien, Greenwich and New Canaan are among a few of the neighboring towns that have implemented deer reduction and monitoring efforts involving hunting.

Although it has not adopted a systematic approach, Stamford has attempted to use hunting in the past. In January 2009, city officials, with the backing of local neighborhood groups, enlisted the services of a bow hunter to kill deer in the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary. The hope was to protect new plantings in the 13-acre preserve that had cost the city almost $500,000.

But the hunt was called off early after opponents said it was not publicized and questioned safety precautions. A total of two deer were killed.

"We didn't properly inform the public before we did it," McKenna said. She added, "But we won't make that mistake again."

The evidence has shown that the removal of even a few deer can have an impact. Last September, the Bartlett Arboretum staged a controlled hunt that culled nine deer from its preserves.

Using motion-detecting cameras, officials had determined that there were between 30 and 40 deer entering and eating away at plantings that had cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars to install. Of its 91 acres, 71 are composed of forest.

Since the hunt, the arboretum has been tracking changes in the vegetation as part of a long-term study.

"Just visually, there's a big difference," said Arboretum botanist Eric Morgan. He added that officials had found several seedlings of two native plant species, rhododendron and amelanchier.

Before last year, he said, "Deer liked them so much we would almost never find them."

The Bartlett Arboretum plans to conduct a second hunt next month.

David Winston, the chief steward of the Cove Island sanctuary and chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation committee, said that promoting future hunts relies on gaining public support.

"You have to make sure everybody understands the importance," Winston said.

Ultimately, he added, hunting is the only solution.

"Their population will grow to the ability of the surrounding environment to support them," he said.

Or, in other words, "As long as there is enough food."

Staff Writer Elizabeth Kim can be reached at or 203-964-2265.