New study triggers salvos in battle over deer control
Paul Schott,
Published: 05:21 p.m., Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That most divisive of doe-eyed creatures -- the deer -- has reared its furry white tail again and triggered a new round of public policy debate over how to control their burgeoning numbers.

A study of the issue released last week states that deer overpopulation is costing Fairfield County residents almost $180 million year in economic and environmental damage. This number works out to more than $1,000 annually for Westport and Fairfield households.

"It's frustrating that there's so much human suffering in Fairfield County associated with tick-related disease, and so little is being done about it," said David Streit, chairman of the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, one of the organizations that commissioned the study.

The study was conducted by Drs. Deborah Viola and Peter Arno of New York Medical College. Data in the study are based on what the authors call "conservative estimates" of the cost of deer-related expenses, such as Lyme Disease treatment, damage to landscaping and vegetation, and deer vs. motor vehicle collisions. Viola and Arno said the study's objective is solely educational, and that they do not advocate a specific solution to deer overpopulation.

Streit, on the other hand, does favor a particular strategy. He said the deer population has exceeded the capacity of the environment in Fairfield County, and that the opening of public property for deer hunting is necessary to bring down local deer herd numbers to economically and environmentally sustainable levels.

Howard Kilpatrick, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Environmental Protection, concurred.

"The problem with Fairfield County is that there's a lot of land where no hunting is occurring," he said. "How can you manage the deer population where you have no access?"

In Fairfield and Westport this question is not rhetorical, as the study will likely reignite the fiery debate over how to best manage local deer populations.

Westport has a blanket ban on hunting within town limits, while Fairfield's Conservation Commission last year approved the opening of public lands for controlled hunting in the face of considerable public outcry. But deer management is hardly settled policy in either town.

A petition was submitted in May to the Westport Representative Town Meeting and First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, calling on them to implement a new plan to control of the town's deer herd, whose size the petitioners say "threatens our health, safety, environment and quality of life."

The petition will come before the RTM's Environmental, Health and Human Services and Public Protection committees at a Sept. 22 meeting.

Fairfield's Conservation Commission, meanwhile, has established a Deer Management Oversight Committee to help the commission hammer out regulations for hunting on public lands.

Without those regulations, commission Chairman Stanton Lesser said no hunts have taken place on town land and none are imminent.

"A good plan needs to be formulated and approved before anything happens," he said.

Nonetheless, the commission's decision to, at some point in the future, allow hunting has provoked impassioned public resistance. A group of Fairfield residents has formed the Coalition Against Hunting in Open Spaces. They are circulating a petition that calls on the RTM to draft an ordinance to overturn the commission's ruling.

Coalition member Peter Hood rejected the latest study's data, and said granting access to hunters results in an "irrevocable" impact on public lands. He added that the study is an example of the Deer Management Alliance using "propaganda and manufactured drama" to advance a pro-hunting agenda.

Aside from the purported motives of the study, Kilpatrick said that the DEP's own field work indicates that deer hunting on public lands is an effective way to help control the problem of deer overpopulation.

He cited a project that the department undertook in partnership with the community of Mumford Cove in Groton in the early 2000s where controlled hunts were organized on public lands.

Kilpatrick said these hunts reduced the local deer population by more than 80 percent, which consequently produced a more than 80 percent reduction in the number of local cases of Lyme disease.

But even heavily regulated hunts present practical obstacles in this region, said Westport Conservation Director Alicia Mozian.

"Is hunting appropriate for such a densely populated area?" she asked. "I don't know. That's my concern."

Added Hood: "I think it's irresponsible to be introducing hunting into open spaces because of the liability issue."

Lesser countered, though, that the hunts in Fairfield will be tightly regulated.

"There're people trying to spread things around that we're going to allow hunting will-nilly on town land," he said. "That's not going to happen. It's going to be very well-controlled, and it's going to be safe."

What all parties can agree on is that the fate of Fairfield County deer populations needs to be decided at a local level.

Streit urged Fairfield County residents to contact their local elected officials to coordinate deer management with the DEP.

Kilpatrick agreed that the DEP can play an influential advisory role in help towns write up deer management policies, but stresses that the "battle is really fought at the local level."

The strategy of the Coalition Against Hunting in Open Spaces bears out Kilpatrick's point. Hood said his organization's campaign will continue until the Fairfield RTM overturns the Conservation Commission's ruling.

"There is enthusiasm out there for sure," he said of the mindset of coalition members.

Meanwhile, Lesser is recruiting town residents to join the Deer Management Oversight Committee.

But he acknowledged that there will always be intransigent advocates on both sides of the debate.

"There are people that are opposed to hunting of any kind, and I don't think the fact that there's a commission, and that we're doing this is going to change their minds," he said.

"If you're against something, you're against something. I respect that."