Taxpayers doling out too much dough to control deer, critics charge

From New York to California, local governments are spending taxpayer dollars to sterilize female deer, but critics say the approach is a misguided, ineffective and “incredibly expensive” approach to thinning out the herds that has become a suburban scourge.

While some communities have used lethal means to curb the exploding population of deer, which roam backyards, destroy gardens and wander into traffic, others have taken what they see as a more humane approach — tranquilizing female deer and removing their ovaries.

It's expensive: The town of Cayuga Heights, N.Y., spent $35,808 to sterilize a dozen does last month. A year earlier, the town spent $148,315 to remove ovaries from 137 female deer. And after the 2012 effort, a survey found an estimated 225 deer — or 125 per square mile — were living in the village, well above the recommended population for suburban communities of 15 to 20 deer per square mile.

“In most cases, they are not effective and incredibly expensive,” Kip Adams, director of education and outreach at The Quality Deer Management Association, told of sterilization efforts. “There’s a lot of costs involved and at the same time, there’s a lot of stress placed on the animals. And at the end of the day, in most cases you still have well over 100 deer per mile, which is at least five times higher than the recommended amount.”

"There’s a lot of costs involved and at the same time, there’s a lot of stress placed on the animals."

— Kip Adams, Quality Deer Management Association

The process of surgically sterilizing the white-tailed deer begins with the capture and tranquilization of the animal. Surgeries are then either performed on the spot within 20 minutes, or the animal is taken to a facility to be sterilized by tubal ligation or removal of the ovaries. Average costs are about $1,200 per deer, according to a 2011 report by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that did not recommend such programs.

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“Fertility control is often suggested or advocated by individuals and organizations as a humane and cost-effective way to control deer populations or to reduce damages or conflicts associated with deer, especially in urban-suburban areas,” the report stated. “However, based on considerable research on fertility control for deer, including several studies sponsored by DEC, this strategy has not proven to be a viable, stand-alone option for managing free-ranging deer populations.”

Deer, which have no natural predators in the suburbs, can be more than just a nuisance, experts say. Too many in any populated area can lead to increased automobile accidents, Lyme disease and negative ecological impacts, Adams said. In 2011, the latest year covered by federal statistics, 199 people were killed in crashes involving animals, including deer, led by 21 fatalities in Texas and 13 in Indiana. In 2007, that figure reached a 16-year high when 223 people were killed nationwide in wrecks involving animals, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The nonprofit group at the center of the sterilization push is White Buffalo, Inc., a Connecticut-based wildlife management and research organization that has, according to its website, captured more than 1,000 deer and removed nearly 10,000 others from the wild. Although White Buffalo also employs lethal means of deer control, it has been hired to conduct sterilization programs in more than 10 states since 1995, including Rhode Island, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The sterilization approach is also being eyed in Fairfax City, Va., which will become the first jurisdiction in the state to use the sterilization route if the city receives clearance from the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Fairfax City Mayor Scott Silverthorne told the Washington Post he was seeking a humane alternative to hunting to trim the city’s “exploding” deer population when he was led to Anthony DeNicola, co-founder and president of the group.

DeNicola, who has more than two decades of experience in wildlife ecology, told that the goal in Cayuga Heights is to sterilize virtually every female deer in the area, a process that could take up to three years.

"Everyone has an opinion and most of them are worthless," DeNicola said of his critics. "No one has ever done anything on this level."

The cost of the procedure will lessen as the program continues, DeNicola said, due to local volunteers supplemented by wildlife professionals.

"You're looking at about $1,000 per deer," he said. "And in [Fairfax City], the cost will be closer to $500 per deer due to local veterinarians donating their time."

DeNicola said the group’s efforts are humane and address inflated deer populations that plague a town, city or county — as well as its roadways, gardens and backyards.

The Fairfax City Council reportedly voted last month to approve the sterilization program, which will cost taxpayers no money since a group of private donors agreed to fund a two-year grant to cover the cost of the project.

Even White Buffalo acknowledges that sterilizing deer can be problematic. A guide posted on the group’s website details the limitations of surgical sterilization or implementation programs, including stress to the animal and cost.

“Implantation is effective, but it requires animal restraint and is stressful to the treated animal, time consuming, and costly,” according to "Managing White-Tailed Deer in Suburban Environments: A Technical Guide." “Surgical sterilization by implants or tubal ligation has been evaluated; however, this approach has significant limitations because of the effort required to capture and handle individual deer. This method may be practical in small (less than 2 square miles), isolated or enclosed parks, arboretums and corporate complexes with few deer.”

The simplest approach to controlling exploding deer populations — as well as the cheapest and perhaps the most humane one — is to shoot enough of the animals to ensure a manageable herd, Adams told

“The only effective way to reduce deer herds is the removal of deer,” Adams said, adding that a direct shot from a rifle will adequately do the job. “And you need to do something to reduce those levels. What we’re seeing in a lot of these suburban areas is just more people and more human development in the habitat of deer, just more people moving into areas where deer have been.”

Still, Martin Mersereau, director of the Cruelty Investigations Department at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told that group supports nonlethal methods of wildlife control like habitat modification.

“As far as surgical sterilization of deer, that causes extreme stress to the animal,” he said. “You have to remember, these are easily terrified prey animals who view us as predators. Imagine being trapped, manhandled, transported, sterilized and then returned to the wild. That’s simply not humane.”

The deer can also suffer from a condition called capture myopathy, a stress-related system shutdown to the shock of being handled by man.

“Even these deer that are successfully released, there’s a chance they’re going to die anyway just having gone through that,” he said. “It’s a real concern here.”