Deer Dilemma postscript: Md. spay program shows alternative

Michelle Basch,

WASHINGTON – After rolling out the series “Deer Dilemma” about the National Park Service’s plan to shoot deer in Rock Creek Park, WTOP heard from a group in Maryland that’s been sterilizing deer as an alternative to killing them.

Throughout the last three years, more than 60 deer in the Phoenix area of Baltimore County have been spayed.

To capture them, the deer are shot with darts that put them to sleep.

“The procedure is actually less intrusive than when a dog or cat is spayed because what we are doing is just removing the doe’s ovaries,” says Enid Feinberg, volunteer president of the nonprofit group Wildlife Rescue, Inc., which is funding the experimental program.

A research permit from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources allows the approach. In 2011, the program’s first year, 32 does were sterilized.

“This alone, by doing the 32 does, will prevent the birthing of probably 300 fawns during the does’ eight-year reproductive life,” says Feinberg.

“The most interesting part of the project is that we found that because the deer are no longer pregnant, they’re no longer consuming the amount of food that they were. So the browsing and the food consumption has dropped tremendously without having to do any harm to the deer,” she adds.

The program initially cost about $1,200 to $1,300 per deer, but Feinberg says it’s now down to about $500 per deer.

“Each year we are able to reduce the cost because we’re getting such an outpouring of veterinarians, vet techs (and) people in the community who want this program to be successful, so they’re donating time and equipment and supplies that are needed to accomplish this,” says Feinberg.

Tony DeNicola is one of several experts brought in by Wildlife Rescue, Inc. to supervise the program.

DeNicola heads a nonprofit group called White Buffalo, Inc., which specializes in both deer sharpshooting and research into alternative methods of controlling deer populations.

He also helps train members of law enforcement to conduct sharpshooting operations.

“I’m trying to create a national standard of conduct — equipment use, shot placement — so that animals are treated in a humane manner and you can ensure maximum public safety,” says DeNicola.

DeNicola has no involvement in the deer management program planned in Rock Creek Park, but his background gives him an educated perspective on it.

He visited the park about three weeks ago.

“I spent a day there both day and night walking around looking at deer behavior, looking at where they interface with the residential areas. To be honest, it’s going to be hard to effectively cull that population given the number and proximity of residential dwellings. A lot of those deer will go into those neighborhoods at night when you can sharpshoot discreetly, and then they will return once the removal team leaves.”

“Rock Creek Park will be probably one of the most challenging programs that anyone has ever pursued from a fertility-control perspective,” DeNicola adds.

He thinks a combination of sharpshooting and sterilization would work best.

“I feel confident you could capture every other female that is not shot and sterilize it so you can see that population decline further and actually see a better and greater benefit for the people that are probably the big proponents of a reduction that live on the edge and are enduring the foraging pressure of deer on their property,” he says.

Aside from the project in Baltimore County, DeNicola has recently helped sterilize deer in Cayuga Heights, N.Y., and San Jose, Calif.

“The opportunity to apply (sterilization) seems to be growing, and I think people are recognizing that it has more merit from a practical perspective than any (birth control) vaccines that we have available today.”

The planned deer hunt in Rock Creek Park is on hold while a federal judge considers a lawsuit filed by opponents.

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