As the suburban deer population explodes, Rye officials are weighing a controversial move to bring in bow hunters to thin several herds that have been eating through vegetable gardens and leaving behind invasive plant species.
City Manager Scott Pickup said the proposal, if approved by the City Council, would allow deer hunting for the first time in decades in the Marshlands Conservancy and other sprawling wooded areas where deer shelter.
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The city formed a deer committee several years ago that suggested several options, including bow hunting, to deal with the rising population. City officials never followed through with any of the group's recommendations, Pickup said.
"Since then, however, the population has really grown and is starting to create problems for residents," he said.
Pickup said that besides wreaking havoc on the city's woods and gardens, the unchecked deer herds increase the risk of Lyme disease, which is spread to humans by ticks that feed on the animals, and the likelihood of deer-vehicle collisions.
But deer hunting in suburbia is a controversial move, often prompting a backlash from animal rights groups. Planned hunts in other Westchester County communities, like Hastings-on-Hudson and Croton-on-Hudson, have been called off amid public outcry.
"There's a lot of issues we're trying to work through," Pickup said. "You've got concerns about wounded animals and people hunting close to residential neighborhoods. There's a lot of people who are sensitive about the issue of deer hunting."
Mayor Doug French said he isn't convinced that the city should be calling in hunters to deal with deer.
"We have a significant deer problem in the region, and we are looking at potential solutions and what has worked best in other communities," he told Newsday. "Whether this program is the one has yet to be determined in my mind."
Council members discussed the issue a few weeks ago but haven't set a date to decide on the plan.
Rye, one of Westchester County's smallest and most affluent cities, is among several New York City suburbs looking at bow hunting to help thin a growing deer population that has no natural predators. State wildlife officials estimate the city's deer population to be 50 per square mile in wooded areas better suited to seven per square mile.
Westchester County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation has been using bow hunters for years to control the rising deer population in county parks.
Hunters participating in the program would have to demonstrate proficiency in bow hunting techniques and would be allowed to hunt only during the county's hunting season, from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. They would not be allowed to hunt within 500 feet of a residential area and would have to get a property owner's permission to retrieve a carcass from private land.
Kevin Clarke, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the deer population in New York has been on the rise for decades and that suburban communities have been too slow to react to the problem.
"This is something that has been coming to a head for decades," he said. "It's taken a long time for communities like Westchester to get on board and realize that it is a problem and that they need to take steps to deal with it."
He said overpopulation also leads to the disappearance of native shrubs and wildflowers, the decline of bird species and the increase of invasive plants that take over the understory, a layer of forest bedding that birds use for nesting.
Because rifle hunting isn't allowed for deer in the county, Rye has few alternatives for keeping the deer population down.
"You can hunt coyotes with a shotgun, but for deer hunting it's bow only in Westchester County, which is one of the most urban regions in the state," Clarke said. "They obviously want to avoid stray bullets flying around the landscape."
Other approaches -- including trap and transfer and contraceptive darting -- haven't proven effective.
"There's no evidence you can reduce a free-ranging herd with anything other than lethal control," he said.
Rye residents seem to be divided over the issue, with some complaining about the deer and others empathizing.
Bill Lambert, who lives in the city's Greenhaven neighborhood, said a herd of about a dozen deer have destroyed his vegetable and flower gardens and soiled his lawn. His wife nearly hit a large buck that crossed the road a few weeks ago.
"Honestly, I consider myself an animal lover just like anyone else, but something really needs to be done," said the 69-year-old retired marketing executive. "There's just too many of them."
Adriane Pearth, 19, said she doesn't think the city should be killing deer to protect the region's woods and gardens.
"There has to be a humane way to deal with it," said the SUNY New Paltz student. "I think it's cruel and unnecessary."