Today, I am in Hastings-on-Hudson, a bedroom community about a half hour north of New York City, on a deer hunt. The weapon of choice is a dart gun, and it's one of the key tools in our collaborative experiment with the town to vaccinate Hastings-on-Hudson's deer and prevent the treated animals from reproducing, as a way of building greater tolerance for their presence and reducing their impacts on shrubbery and the forest. This effort builds on our experience in conducting humane deer-control programs on Fire Island National Seashore in New York and on Fripp Island in South Carolina.
This one is different than the others because the control program is happening within a town with a year-round population of 7,500 residents. In 2009, Hastings-on-Hudson proposed a trap-and-kill program to control its 120 or so deer, but a citizens' group, led by Barbara Stagno, persuaded Mayor Peter Swiderski that killing deer would not be sustainable. She put him in touch with Dr. Allen Rutberg, a Tufts University wildlife scientist who once worked at The HSUS and has led other humane wildlife population control programs, and together they charted a course to control the deer by vaccinating the females and limiting reproduction.
"It is a practical solution in a dense community, where lethal options are problematic," Mayor Swiderski told me today. "There's an eagerness to see that the problem is addressed."
Our team has darted 25 deer thus far, and we'll be here into April. "Our goal is to treat two-thirds of the female segment of the population – from 30 to 50 - in order to curb the size of the population over time," says Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director of Innovative Wildlife Management for The HSUS.
Stephanie and her team have set up feeder stations, with automatic dispensers spraying whole corn in a 10-foot radius of the four-foot-high device twice a day, taking advantage of the clustering of deer around these sites. Our team then approaches the deer, already pretty well habituated to a human presence, and shoots a targeted female with a dart that immobilizes her for a brief period. When she is down, our expert team removes the dart and treats the entry point. We attach a numbered tag to both ears and then inject the PZP-22 vaccine, which should prevent pregnancy for 22 months. We collect a little blood for a pregnancy screening, administer a broad-spectrum antibiotic, and do body measurements. We then reverse the effect of the tranquilizer, and it usually takes the deer two or three hours to recover. Our team stays with them until they get back on their feet, to protect them from dogs, coyotes, or any other possible threat.
We've found the deer are in pretty good condition even after this tough winter in the Northeast. This morning, we came across about 10 deer already darted, and we weren't able to get a good shot on any untagged adult females. But we'll be back out this evening, and should be able to get a clean shot at one or two. We'll stay here until we hit our target number.
The evidence of strong community cooperation has been encouraging. Homeowners who welcome our conducting the procedure on their property plant green flags on their lawn to signal to us that it's open season on their property. One woman approached our vehicle today – identified with our logo and a "HOH DEER PROJECT" rooftop sign – and told us how much she appreciated our efforts.
There are many locations, like the densely populated Hastings-on-Hudson, where hunting isn't an option. People want something done about deer impacts, but most don't want a violent outcome for the animals, especially if there's a more humane alternative. If this program succeeds here, it's one that can be replicated in hundreds of communities throughout the country dealing with similar conflicts. Human-wildlife conflicts are a real issue, and no group puts more of its shoulder into humane solutions than The HSUS. In our quest to help all animals, we are happy to provide leadership and forge solutions that are good for communities and the people and animals living with them.