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Expert recommends non-lethal ways to manage deer population

Friday, September 21, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

An expert on humane deer management recommended the city educate citizens on the use of repellants, fences and strategic plant and flower selection to control the city’s sprawling deer population, rather than using lethal means. 

At a special called meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission held on Thursday night, Laura Simon, field director of the Humane Society’s Urban Wildlife Program, said deer overpopulation in Austin (as elsewhere) is a “problem of our own making,” a result of the “all-day” buffet homeowners supply deer with by planting certain plants and flowers.

“We are providing more food in suburbia than deer ever had in the forested ecosystem they survived in,” Simon said. “We have literally put out a welcome mat. We’ve landscaped our yards and gardens with all kinds of flowers, just wonderful delicacies for deer.”

So if Austin hopes to reduce the deer population, Simon continued, it needs to engage in population-mitigation practices that focus on limiting food availability.

These practices include: planting deer-resistant plant species – for example, daffodils, which deer hate, instead of tulips, which they love; installing deer fencing; employing scare tactics, such as distress-call emitters, motion-activated sprinklers and repellants, both chemical and electronic; and getting a dog.

If Austinites use these mitigation tools, Simon said, the city will see fewer deer and a resulting drop in the number of deer-related complaints. The most common complaints Simon has heard from Austinites include that deer eat flower and gardens, that they can be aggressive, that they cause car collisions, and that they expose people to Lyme disease.

Reducing food availability is so important for limiting deer population because well-fed deer are far more productive than deer that aren’t. Well-fed deer breed earlier, conceive at a younger rate, have more young, produce fawn with lower neonatal mortality rates, and see higher fawn survival than hungrier deer, Simon said.

The other issue that makes limiting food availability so important is how ineffective are other, more active approaches to population mitigation. For example, Simon said hunting deer has almost no long-term effect on deer populations. That’s because studies have shown that deer have more fawn after hunting than deer that have not been hunted. Simon called this the “bounce-back effect.”

“Hunting often leads to more deer instead of less,” Simon said, pointing to several studies showing the incidents of “twinning” — deer having two fawns rather than one — is considerably lower among unhunted deer as among hunted deer. “After hunting, deer had more fawns. What you get is this yo-yo effect. When you hunt, populations go down, but they pop back up in the spring. Hunting will reduce the herd but the results are so temporary because the population bounces back.”

Simon believes food control will be more effective than hunting, imposing feeding bans or employing the use of chemical contraception.

“Food control is everything,” Simon said. “There’s so much food out there for them. Starvation is not an issue.”

This non-lethal approach falls in line with what the Animal Advisory Commission will most likely recommend to Austin City Council. According to commission Chair David Lunstedt, promoting lethal means would run contrary to the spirit of a no-kill city like Austin. 

“I think the direction we’re heading, being that Austin is the big no-kill city that it is, I don’t think the commission would ever recommend lethal means, and I don’t think City Council would ever go for it anyway,” Lundstedt told In Fact Daily. “This presentation was part of the education package we’re trying to put forward to help people deal with the deer problem.”

Lundstedt said the commission hopes to have a recommendation for the Council by the beginning of 2013.

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