Hastings plans birth control to rein in deer numbers

A deer roams the foothills of the Rocky

A deer roams the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colo. With a booming deer population in Westchester County, Hastings-on-Hudson announced Wednesday that it is planning a unique approach of darting them with a contraceptive to keep them from reproducing for up to three years. (Dec. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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With a booming deer population in Westchester and other parts of the Hudson Valley, Hastings-on-Hudson is planning a unique approach of darting them with a contraceptive that can keep the animals from reproducing for up to three years.

Starting in early 2013, village officials and resident volunteers will gather preliminary research for the birth control project, led by Tufts University veterinary expert Allen Rutberg. Hastings expects to soon receive authorization from state and federal environmental officials, with plans to begin darting the animals by 2014, if not sooner.

Village officials say it is the most humane approach to addressing the widespread problem.

"Most communities think bow hunting or gun shots, hit the wall of resistance in the community and then back off," said Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski. "We're willing to try something different. Even if it works partially well, it will make a difference."

Once the five-year experiment is up and running, female deer will be darted with PZP or porcine zona pellucida, a vaccine that goes by the trade name ZonaStat-H. Made from a protein extract found in pig ovaries, it is considered 95 percent effective in preventing pregnancies, according to Rutberg.

The contraceptive experiment comes as increasing suburban development has cleared so much of the region's woodlands that hungry deer seem to be everywhere -- from grazing beside the Saw Mill Parkway during the evening rush hour to climbing through residential gardens in broad daylight.

Funding for the project will come from grants as well as the village, officials said.

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Each dose is expected to cost $20 to $25, but in the first year, the tab will probably run in the $15,000 range because deer must be tranquilized and tagged to track them, Rutberg explained. Since these gentle-but-destructive creatures do not roam, researchers expect to find herds with regular, neighborhood routes. Darting them annually will hopefully reach more untreated deer each time.

In addition to deer darting, the project is expected to give Hastings its first real understanding of the population. Like most municipalities, the village does not even know how many deer live in the area. The only hard information comes from the police department, which counted 15 dead deer on local roads in 2011; there are usually 12 to 16 deer strikes every year, Swiderski said.

While animal rights activists are "glad that they're not going to kill the deer," the larger issue is that "birth control won't work on its own," said Kristin Simon, the senior cruelty case worker at the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

She stressed the need to integrate other measures, such as using deer repellents in gardens; planting petunias, day lilies and other species that deer usually don't eat; fencing; and banning the feeding of all wild animals.

Rutberg said that he is "well aware" of the other issues involved in addressing the deer problem. As part of the experiment, the village plans to fence off a small section of Hillside Woods to see what would happen to the land in a deer-free environment.

Contraceptive darting to control animal populations was first used on deer in 1993, when Rutberg helped successfully test the concept on Fire Island. Over the past six years, Rutberg has led a darting project on Fripp Island, S.C., which resulted in a 50 percent reduction in the overall deer population.

The deer in Hastings present a new challenge, however. "We can manage deer populations on islands but in open areas where deer can move around freely, we haven't tried that before," Rutberg said.

While deer can live for 12 to 15 years, hunters and cars usually give them a suburban life span of seven to 10 years, according to Rutberg. A healthy well-fed female will give birth to twin fawns every year -- maybe even triplets if she is dining especially well.

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