Cease Fire

Citizen committee pushes for humane population control of white-tailed deer

click to enlarge Cincinnati Parks will stop culling deer in three parks until 2015.
Cincinnati Parks will stop culling deer in three parks until 2015.

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ince 2007, Cincinnati Parks has been actively managing herds of white-tailed deer through “lethal removal” in select urban parks across the region — including Mt. Airy Forest, California Woods and Ault Park — in response to overpopulation concerns. 

But a group of citizens in Clifton concerned about the safety and efficacy of the current culling practices has convinced the Cincinnati Board of Park Commissioners to temporarily halt the practice. They say there’s been a lack of effort to find more humane alternatives to stabilize and reduce the deer population.

With recommendations from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife (ODNR), the technical owner of all wildlife in the state, Cincinnati Parks decided to allow deer hunting in order to “restore and sustain long-term biodiversity and native forest plant species,” according to its website. The decision also required City Council to pass a few amendments to the Cincinnati municipal code regarding the discharge of weapons in public parks.

Dr. Millie Schafer, a recently retired research scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is among the self-described “spontaneous collection” of around 10 citizens pushing for changes, as is Nayana Shah, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Cincinnati. Shah penned an opinion piece for The Enquirer in September calling for an end to the “unilateral decision” by Cincinnati Parks to pursue “fatal methods of deer management.” They have also lobbied City Council and the Clifton Town Meeting.

“[Deer] are sentient beings. It’s something people don’t really want to think about,” Schafer says. “They feel pain. They feel fear. Does bond with their young. They have a social structure; they’re a matriarchal society. Fawns stay with their moms for one to two years depending, and sadly many of the fawns see their mothers shot.”

The goal of the citizen committee is to implement a research project to humanely control the park’s deer population using either birth control or sterilization versus culling.

“All of this is about urban deer, not the thousands of deer roaming through the countryside,” Schafer says. “It is not a threat to hunting. We just don’t want hunting in the city.”

Cincinnati Parks is open to research projects that might lead to new population control practices and will offer staff to monitor the work if approved. But the parks don’t offer monetary support to anyone helping control the deer program in the parks; the current program relies heavily on volunteers. And Cincinnati Parks cannot independently approve the research project without permission from the chief of the ODNR.

“If this can be proven to work and the state of Ohio approves, this could be a landmark project and revolutionize what we do,” says Jim Burkhardt, superintendent of the Division of Operations – Land Management and Urban Forestry for Cincinnati Parks.

In October, the park board suspended the culling of white-tailed deer via bow hunting in three Clifton parks — Rawson Woods, Edgewood Grove and Mt. Storm — until June 2015 to give the citizen committee an opportunity to formulate their alternative program. The program needs to include a step-by-step process, including staffing and reporting procedures; peer-reviewed research support; a budget with documented funding resources; all required federal, state, county and city permits; and documentable results, presented to the Park Board Natural Resource staff.  

“The park board decided, by listening to the people and the overall situation for deer in the Clifton area, to suspend the hunting and work with the Clifton people to see if they can develop an alternative program,” Burkhardt says.

White-tailed deer forage on plants, eating everything from grass and leaves to poison ivy. Cincinnati Parks began studying the impact of deer overpopulation on parklands more than a decade ago after noticing an increase in the physical presence of deer, along with disappearing wildflowers, a dearth of young trees and even a decrease in amber honeysuckle, the deer’s last priority food source.

An aerial infrared study suggested that Mt. Airy’s deer population in 2006 was 175, some years showing as many as 334. A document presented to City Council in 2005 from then-city manager Valerie Lemmie suggested there could be as many as 600. (Because deer are mobile, it’s difficult to get an exact number.)

“The numbers are variable depending on who you read, but a good average number is about 15 [deer] per square mile,” Burkhardt says. “Mt. Airy Forest is 2.3-square miles. A good average number of deer is 35 in Mt. Airy Forest.”

Based on those numbers, the parks would have to kill between 140 and 565 deer to reach an optimal biological carrying capacity.

In 2007, the initial white-tailed deer population culling started with nighttime sharpshooting by Cincinnati police officers. The officers went into the parks at night to bait and kill the deer. According to Burkhardt, the first year they took down 210 deer, the meat of which was processed and turned over to organizations like the Drop Inn Center.

“After two years of sharpshooting, we couldn’t keep substantiating the cost,” Burkhardt says. “This is taxpayer money we’re talking about here. The other alternative the state had given us was using bow hunters.”

According to the Cincinnati Parks website, 151 bow hunters successfully passed qualifications and purchased permits for the 2012/13 season. All approved bow hunters must pass the written portion of the Ohio Hunter Education Course; attend a Park Board sponsored orientation and training session; complete a Park Board sponsored shooting skill qualification test; and possess a current Ohio hunting license and deer permit. They must also follow all ODNR regulations regarding processing and tagging of the animals.

“They have to show us that they can properly handle a bow and shoot accurately,” Burkhardt says. “We don’t want wounded deer running around the parks; that’s horrendous.”

Portions of the parks participating in the bow-hunting program are closed to the public certain dates between September and February to allow hunters time to hunt safely, specifically using independently constructed elevated tree stands.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern in the park board and it’s the No. 1 concern of course with this deer program,” Burkhardt says. “So the idea is the arrows are on a downward trajectory and they aren’t going to go long distances and hurt somebody else.”

According to PETA, a member of the Maine BowHunters Alliance estimates that 50 percent of animals shot with crossbows are wounded but not killed. But reports from small studies by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies have shown up to a 98 percent recovery rate, meaning the deer is shot, killed and removed.

Wounded deer either go on to recover from their injuries or die from infection, animal attacks or other events.

While the culling has brought the population down, according to the parks, they have yet to reach their preferred number of 15 to 20 deer per square mile.

The ODNR code currently only allows the use of contraceptives in noncaptive wild animals “for scientific research,” requiring a conditional permit in writing after a person or group has submitted a proposal outlining the specific research project.

There has been one recent approved population control study done in Ohio. From 2001 to 2006, Cleveland Metroparks conducted a $500,000 study on immunocontraception — administering a certain drug that uses the animal’s immune system to prevent fertilization — finding that it did decrease deer pregnancies, but Metroparks suspended the program after the mobility of the animals made the drug difficult to administer.

According to Schafer, the citizen committee is currently deciding between supporting sterilization or contraception as its preferred route.

Sterilization involves the capture, release and tagging of the animal after surgically removing its ovaries, while birth control relies on immunocontraceptive vaccines like porcine zona pellucida (PZP) and GonaCon, which the Environmental Protection Agency granted regulatory approval for use in white-tailed deer in 2009. The vaccines are hand-injected into the rumps of deer or administered via dart.

According to two recent studies on PZP in New York and South Carolina, the contraceptive typically reduced pregnancy rates by 80 to 90 percent, decreasing the deer population by nearly 60 percent.

After prioritizing which method they want to pursue, the citizen committee plans to present to the Cincinnati Board of Park Commissioners and then pass their proposal along to an ODNR representative who will then present it to ODNR officials.

“We have until June 2015 to show the park commissioner how much progress we’ve made,” Schafer says, “And that’s going to decide whether that’s enough progress to justify not killing the deer in 2015.” ©

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