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Thinning The Deer Herd: Birth Control Or Sharpshooters?

Marisa Zocco |
October 23, 2014 | 11:20 p.m. PDT


Hunting still reigns supreme when it comes to keeping deer populations under control (Kansas Tourism/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)
Hunting still reigns supreme when it comes to keeping deer populations under control (Kansas Tourism/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)
When Bambi’s Aunt relocated to a quiet park in the suburbs of New York because of a fire, she could never have imagined her life would be so complicated. Caught in a wide open field, two guns are aimed her way. One holds a bullet that will turn her into a steak on someone’s table; the other holds a tranquilizer dart that will terminate her right to reproduce.

It sounds like a bizarre twist on the Disney classic but the plot is rooted firmly in reality. 

An article published in the fall edition of National Parks magazine revealed that a battle has begun in parks with nearby residents and an overpopulation of deer, particularly on the east coast. One side of the field argues for the use of deer contraceptives to quell the population, claiming that killing them is unnecessary cruelty. The other side however, has their finger on the trigger. 

How does the story end? Well, the best ending would be a harsh one: Bang! Dead. Food-bank.

The reason national parks should be trigger happy is because they can embrace something a little more natural and philosophical than it would appear to be at first glance. We can address three issues with one shot: animal population, forest regrowth and hunger.

In urban national parks like the 1,750-acre Rock Creek Park spanning from Maryland up to the Potomac River, the reason that an overpopulation of deer exists is because hunting is not permitted. Rock Creek Park is essentially in the back yards of Maryland residents and the trails are extremely popular with hikers, bikers and nature-goers. There, the current method of population control is death by hired sharpshooter

Four hours north, in the village of Hastings-On-Hudson, New York, a project has begun to administer birth control to deer. With the help of the Humane Society, the deer are tranquilized and then given an injection of contraception. 

But there are differences in the reasoning for each form of population control.

At Rock Creek Park, new growth of native wildflowers, trees and plant life have been greatly diminished to an almost critical point due to the grazing habits of excessive numbers of deer. The trees in the area are falling at a rate faster than that of new trees growing up, and invasive plants that the deer do not prefer have begun to take over. 

In contrast, in Hastings-On-Hudson the issue with deer appears to be more one of inconvenience: deer enjoying a buffet of involuntary offerings from residential gardens, or caught in the headlights and causing accidents. 

Hastings-On-Hudson, opting for population control by contraception, proved relatively unsuccessful in their attempt to control the population of its deer. In April, it was reported that out of the 40 to 50 deer the Humane Society had planned to treat with birth control during the first two years, only eight were successfully injected last winter. The team blamed challenging weather and expected to do better the following year. They also warned residents not to be surprised if deer tagged as having been treated still arrived on their laws with fawns in the summer. Many of the deer were already pregnant when treated. The birth control vaccine is expected to take effect before the next season.

Meanwhile in Rock Creek, sharpshooters got straight to the point. In six nights, 106 deer were killed, and the thousands of pounds of venison from those deer were donated to a local food bank, essentially providing hungry homes with good quality, local and organic meat. 

That is what I would call getting to the heart of the issue.

In rural areas where hunting is lawful, a certain number of permissions to hunt (tags) are issued each year based on species population. Those individuals or families who purchase tags are given an opportunity to reap the rewards of providing themselves with organic meat for what could easily be the majority of the year. In more urban areas, hunting simply cannot be permitted for public safety purposes. So if the government is required to control deer population and must spend money to do so, why not utilize those funds in a way that resolves more than one issue?

Rock Creek, by deciding to kill off its excess deer population, reacted to and successfully addressed three issues that required fast action: animal control, forest regrowth, and community hunger. That is far more than Hastings-On-Hudson can say for themselves as they continue to have a problem with deer eating the food they hope to provide for themselves with their gardens.

The reasoning behind animal contraception seems to be one of human guilt over actual ethics. Otherwise, how can we encourage pumping hormones into free animals we don’t want to eat while being averse to injecting hormones into farm-raised animals we plan to consume?

Killing our national parks’ overpopulations of deer is the way we can do both. We can enjoy their aesthetic in the park and allow them to live naturally without unfamiliar hormones running through their bodies. At the same time, our governments can do good by providing organic, local meat to food banks, feeding those who need nourishment. After all, birth control is expensive.

Contact Contributor Marissa Zocco here.

Photograph licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



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