Some residents of Town and Country plan to hold a vigil for deer Thursday night in an unusual protest against what they call the city's costly and ineffective approach to managing the animal population.
The "Vigil for the Deer of Town and Country," which starts at 5:30 p.m. at the corner of Clayton and Mason Road, aims to bring attention to alternatives to the city's lethal deer management plan. Vigil organizer and former alderman Al Gerber said those lethal means have so far failed to solve the deer overpopulation problem and, as a result, have become expensive.
“It looks like they are going to have to do this for the foreseeable future: every year, come back and spend money to shoot a bunch of deer," Gerber said. "It’s disconcerting to people in town to have that going on every year."
Since 2009, the city has annually contracted with a nonprofit wildlife management company of professional sharpshooters, White Buffalo, to cull a total of 700 deer. City administrator Gary Hoelzer said using sharpshooters is the most effective way to lower the deer population, in order to reduce the number of vehicle collisions and protect public safety.
The city plans to spend $46,500 in its current budget to cull another 100 deer, which vigil organizer and former alderman Barbara Ann Hughes called "a fortune." It is also more than the estimated cost projected by Hoelzer in a 2011 written report to city aldermen. By 2015, the report predicted the city would only have to cull 20 deer a year at a cost of $15,000.
Gerber said the city is stuck in a "never-ending" process of killing deer. Vigil organizers offer the example of a town in Ohio where they say a lethal method to managing urban deer resulted in an increase in numbers. But while Gerber said deer will begin producing multiple offspring in order to "rebound" the population, the Ohio town's website indicates that rebounding does not happen and that producing twins is "the norm" for does.
Still, Gerber said the city should employ non-lethal management methods, such as sterilization, to maintain a reasonable population. He said surgical sterilization costs about $1,100-$1,200 per deer, compared with less than $500 per deer for sharpshooting. But he said that "pretty big upfront cost" is worth it.
"Once you’ve done it, they won’t have any fawns to be killed in future years," he said. "You spend a little more at the beginning, but save a lot over the course of 14 years."
But the city's Hoelzer said that's not necessarily true. He said in the early years of the program, the city had 130 does sterilized, but decided to discontinue those efforts.
"When you still have too many deer and you still have a significant overpopulation, when you sterilize the doe, they are still in the population and are still subject to being hit by vehicles," Hoelzer said. "The other factor is cost."
Hoelzer said as deer populations are reduced, it becomes more difficult - and more expensive - to locate does for sterilization. As far as the costs of sharpshooting, Hoelzer said those also include the price of processing the deer. Through the Department of Conservation's "Share the Harvest" program, the meat is then sent to the St. Louis Area Food Bank to go to food pantries.
Town and Country is also following best practices with its current lethal management plan, Hoelzer said. A 2005 report produced by the West St. Louis County Deer Task Force said sharpshooting is the best method to reduce deer levels quickly.
"Lethal management actions are currently the only methods available to reduce the deer population," the report said. "Non-lethal methods focus on damage abatement and do not function to reduce the number of deer."
Other non-lethal options could be possible once maintenance levels are reached in the 10 square miles west of Interstate 270 on which the city has focused, Hoelzer said. Development and the reduction of natural predators in the area allowed the deer population to grow to as many as 700. But according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the ideal number of deer, irrespective of urbanization, should be no more than 20 deer per square mile, or about 100 to 200 deer in those 10 square miles. Town and Country has not yet reached that maintenance level.
“You still have an overabundance of deer until you reach the maintenance stage. To really get down to the appropriate level when you have an overabundance of deer is the method we are employing right now: sharpshooting," Hoelzer said.
Too many deer has created a public safety issue, Hoelzer said. In 2012, the city had 97 deer-vehicle collisions. But by 2014, Hoelzer said it had 74 - a 24 percent decrease.
"What we see with the removal of the natural predator and suburbanization is we have a lot of conflicts with vehicles," he said. "We're going in the right direction, but we're not there yet. We still have hot spots."
But Gerber said he doesn't believe the city is motivated solely by public safety concerns, but also because of complaints that deer are destroying "people's flower beds and yards."
"They could put a fence up or they could grow plants the deer don't like," he said.
Gerber also isn't giving up on nonlethal methods of deer management, either. He said nonsurgical sterilization is being tested in other communities and could be an option in the future. But city officials need to consider them, Gerber said, and that's why the vigil is so important.
"I sort of got the impression the city government feels people have lost interest in this, but they are still concerned and continue to look at alternative ways," he said. "It's a good way to show we still care about the deer and are interested in finding a better way."