Beacon update: Town and Country's 'deerly departed' | St. Louis Public Radio

Beacon update: Town and Country's 'deerly departed'

Dec 23, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2009 - Town and Country's pre-Christmas effort to reduce the number of deer was "extremely successfully completed," with 112 deer killed by sharpshooters and 100 more sterilized, Alderman Fred Meyland-Smith said.

But with only $10,000 budgeted for next year for deer control, compared with $150,000 this year, he's not certain how well the program will be able to continue.

"We recognize the need to continue a deer management effort in our town in successive years," Meyland-Smith said. "What components those future programs might consist of is to be determined. But we have been advised by the professionals that deer management, to be effective, requires an ongoing effort."

Tony DeNicola, whose company White Buffalo, based in Connecticut, conducted the shooting and sterilization program, agreed.

"We would like to have lethally removed more deer, as many neighborhoods are experiencing quite an abundance of deer based on our night-time observations," he wrote in an e-mail message. "It is also evident that some people feed the deer, which hampered our sharpshooting productivity at a few locations.

"Unfortunately, our effort will have little impact towards improving the situation, but will possibly keep things close to the same for another year. Clearly many more deer need to be lethally removed if they want to see an appreciable reduction in deer-related conflicts."

Meyland-Smith said that in the 16 days the program was conducted in early December, "most residents were undisturbed and maybe even unaware that it was unfolding, despite the effort we made to inform people. I think most residents view it as a program that was extremely successfully completed, and it makes Town and Country a safer place to both live and visit.

"There were significant unknowns with regards to this project. It has never been done before in the state of Missouri, combining a lethal and a non-lethal program. I can tell you that not a single landowner who was approached to participate in this program refused, and a number of other landowners stepped forward to volunteer their land. We were very pleased with that."

He said he has not yet noticed a decrease in the number of deer roaming the streets and yards in Town and Country, but he added that it really is too early for any reduction to be obvious.

"That's too much to expect," Meyland-Smith said, "Remember, half of this effort was devoted to sterilization, so those deer are still with us. You only experience the effect of the sterilization later, when those deer would have given birth, and in subsequent years when they would have reproduced.

"But nonetheless, there were 110 deer removed via sharpshooting, and 110 is a pretty significant number. We don't know how many deer we have, but there's 110 fewer of them."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below. 

Last Thanksgiving, Fred Meyland-Smith and his family were driving on Clayton Road in Town and Country when a frightening but all-too-familiar scene played out right by the entrance to his subdivision.

A deer darted onto the road, was struck by a car and was thrown into the air. The car that hit it swerved to avoid the animal. Meyland-Smith, an alderman in the city and head of its deer task force, said the car easily could have had a head-on collision.

He recalled the scare as Town and Country prepares to end -- finally -- long discussions of what to do about its deer population and begin a program to sterilize 100 of the animals and kill 100 more, with hired sharpshooters brought in by a company from Connecticut.

The $150,000 plan will thin the herd but not necessarily end the controversy. Meyland-Smith said, "The predominant message I am getting from residents is that they're anxious to get the program started and address the problem."

But his frequent antagonist on the Board of Aldermen, John Hoffmann, says the solution is the wrong one, and the effects will be slight.

"How cost-effective is it to pay $1,000 to give a deer a hysterectomy and three days later have it get hit by a car on Clayton Road?" Hoffmann says, adding that the plan will not do much to solve the problem because "the Bambi people were extremely loud and extremely vocal."

In a place like Town and Country, he adds, the enemies of the deer are not exactly the same ones they have in the wild. "Their natural predators in the suburbs," Hoffmann says, "are Lexuses and BMWs."

DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS

No one can be certain exactly how many deer live in Town and Country, though the animals are known to be most concentrated in the parts of the city with open areas -- Queeny Park, for example, southwest of Clayton and Mason roads, and the Principia School a little farther east.

Erin Shank, an urban wildlife biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, says the preferred concentration of deer is about 20 per square mile; anything more than that, she says, and they begin to cause damage to developed property.

Right now, she estimates Town and Country has up to three times that concentration of deer.

Meyland-Smith says that based on how many carcasses Conservation Department personnel have recovered from the roads, vehicle-deer collisions occurred nearly once a week every week for the five years ending in 2008, and he says the number is almost certainly higher when you figure in crashes where an injured animal limped away or where the damage was handled by Town and Country, not the state.

"Every one of those could have represented either a serious injury or a fatality," he says.

A particularly memorable clash between deer and development took place last November at the Manchester Meadows shopping strip, when a 10-point buck tried to attack a deer mannequin in one store before wandering next door into a Home Depot. The standoff was ended by a police officer with an assault rifle.

The incident was only one of many in Town and Country. At one point, the city tried trapping the animals and moving them elsewhere, but Shank said that practice was outlawed in 2001. The stress of relocation was killing up to 30 percent of the deer, she said, and chronic wasting disease began showing up at the same time, so the state did not want to risk moving any health problems along with the deer.

"When you relocate animals from one area to another," she said, "you relocate the entire biological package."

STERILIZATION AND SHARPSHOOTERS

After considerable debate -- not always mild-mannered -- the city decided earlier this year on its management plan, to kill and sterilize. In the next few weeks, bait will be put out to lure animals to designated areas where the 100 surgical sterilizations can take place.

Then, two sharpshooters will be put into place to shoot 100 more deer in the head. The animals will be taken away promptly, then their meat will be processed and donated to the Share the Harvest food bank. Meyland-Smith said the plan should be complete by the third week of December.

To conduct the operation, Town and Country hired a firm called White Buffalo Inc., out of Camden, Conn. Its founder, Tony DeNicola, says the city's plan is unusual in having an equal number of deer sterilized and killed; most of the time, he said, an area will use one method or the other but not both.

Town and Country presents unique challenges, he added, because it has little public land, so he and his crew will rely on access of private property. He said they are pretty far along in getting the necessary permission to station sharpshooters either up in trees or in elevated spots where the natural topography will give them the vantage point they need.

"We can't go wherever we want," DeNicola said, "so we need access to those particular properties, particularly for the shooting. Once you have a chance to communicate with folks, you put them at ease.

"The key is to make sure that law enforcement is involved, to make sure you don't have people who are irresponsible. We've removed over 10,000 deer from suburban environments, without incident. It's not just luck."

DEERLY BELOVED

The presence of the deer -- and the disruption they bring to foliage, traffic and more -- has long divided Town and Country residents. An ordinance that prohibits residents from feeding the animals was welcomed by some and protested by others.

Jim Ambrozetes, who has chronicled the debate on a website, makes a point about the deer that is echoed by many others: "They were here first." He also thinks the decision by the city to bring in sharpshooters and sterilizers is a reflection of an attitude that too often wants to take the easy way out.

"If everybody is so lazy in this country that all we can think of is to kill every time we have a problem," said Ambrozetes, who has lived in Town and Country sine 1995. "I am extremely disappointed. I think we should be able to live with the wildlife. No one wants to do anything to make anything better. The answer is not to kill everything.

"What's next on the list when another animal becomes a problem? I hoped people could do it in a calmer and gentler way, to show our kids and grand kids there is another way besides killing."

Jay Kirkpatrick of ZooMontana in Billings, came to Town and Country to talk about contraception for the deer, rather than sterilization. Contraception is reversible, he explained, but sterilization is not. He was not able to make his case successfully, though he says the method has been used successfully with wild horses, zoo animals and African elephants.

When you begin to talk about deer, though, "it all goes to hell in a handbag," Kirkpatrick says. "Not for scientific reasons. There are no scientific issues. The issues are all social, cultural, political or economic."

He even has a satirical piece about the seven stages of grief associated with efforts to rid a community of animals that some view as a nuisance and others view as cute.

When cities bring him in to talk about animal control, Kirkpatrick added, he gives them the data he needs to back up his case, but he quickly gets out of the local controversy by pointing out: "They're not my deer, they're your deer. I don't care what you do with them."

He also wonders why, once a community decides to take action to control the deer population, it is in such a hurry to get things done.

"People say, 'We can't wait around, we have to solve this next year.' They're saying this about a problem that took 20 years to be created. That doesn't seem just to me."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Meyland-Smith, the alderman and head of the deer task force, has at least a partial answer to the question of urgency: the four-foot fencing he has placed around virtually every one of the shrubs in his yard. He routinely sees half a dozen or so deer in his yard in the early morning or late afternoon, and he notes the problem has escalated sharply since he moved into his home in 1985. Things are only likely to get worse, he says.

But he and others in Town and Country have no illusions that this fall's operation to kill 100 deer and sterilize 100 more will solve the problem. "Deer management is an ongoing proposition," he said. "You adjust the methods you employ year to year, depending on the circumstances."

DeNicola, who will be in charge of the operation in Town and Country, puts it this way:

"If you have a lawn, you are going to mow it forever. Once you go down this road, it's a renewable resource, like pruning trees or shoveling snow.

"There is no doubt that the program has to be scaled up at some point. In year one, you show how effective it is."

One aim that Town and Country has achieved, though, is demonstrating how a community can evolve in its thinking about how to handle a problem like the deer. Shank, the urban wildlife biologist at the Department of Conservation, said the city has become a model for others that are dealing with the dilemma after first appearing -- well, like a deer in the headlights.

"They've come a long way," Shank said. "It's been such a long road for Town and Country, which became kind of infamous for its deer problem. Other communities said they don't want to be another Town and Country, to be in the spotlight for how it can divide a community.

"If this goes off without a hitch, and they have laid all the groundwork to make sure it will, they will be one of the leaders in suburban deer management."