An eight-hour search for deer in a Centreville park by 16 shotgun-toting hunters resulted in the killing of 11 animals yesterday as Fairfax park officials began their annual drive to cull the county's thriving herd.
Even with a barely double-digit toll, county wildlife managers proclaimed the rainy-day hunt a success, explaining that the elimination of one doe also rubs out the dozens of offspring she could have produced in a decade.
Some scoffed at the results. "I am just amazed that anybody would continue to defend this," said Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "It confirms what I said all along: Managed hunts are a poor method" to trim the herd.
One state deer expert agreed.
"There was some recreation provided, but there's no long-term population control," said Matt Knox, deer programs supervisor for Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "One or two [killed] will have no impact at all. They would have to take a minimum of 50."
Knox, who supports efforts to kill some of the tens of thousands of deer roaming Fairfax, said such programs work only when hunters kill half or more of the deer in a given area each year for several years.
Fairfax plans three more managed hunts at park sites in coming months and will bring out police sharpshooters as well. Knox said the sharpshooters have proven to be more successful than managed hunts. "If they apply enough pressure for three to five years, I promise you they can significantly reduce the deer herd. It requires an annual sustained effort, and to this point there has been none of that."
Fairfax officials have waged war against their burgeoning deer population for two years, following the death of a school librarian in McLean when her car collided with a deer. County gardeners regularly complain about defoliation, and wildlife biologists say the animals are destroying habitat for other creatures.
Animal-rights activists have condemned the managed hunts, which have also been staged in Montgomery County. A handful of protesters braved yesterday's chill morning rain in Centreville.
Two years ago, the county was roundly criticized for deer hunts that cost more than $60,000 to bag 60 animals. Last year, the county abandoned the hunts, opting instead for police sharpshooters riding in pickup trucks at night; the less-expensive approach netted just 107 deer in six nights.
Yesterday's hunt cost Fairfax $750, officials said, not including money for state and regional parks employees. Even so, with three more hunts and several sharpshooting events planned, some supporters of the program appear to be wavering.
"My bottom line all along has been: Is this an effective program?" said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who voted for the hunts earlier this year. "I am increasingly troubled by evidence that suggests that it's not."
Other officials expressed disappointment with the number of deer killed yesterday, blaming the bad weather.
County wildlife biologist Earl Hodnett said Fairfax can't afford to ignore the problem. "The deer are destroying the parks to a greater degree than a fire would," he said. "In my mind, any deer that's removed from Fairfax County is a success."
Asked whether deer have any natural predators in Fairfax, Hodnett said there are too few bobcats in the county to keep the animals in check. A police officer standing nearby offered another possibility. "A Mercury Cougar," he quipped, "going about 60."
CAPTION: Hunters are briefed before heading out to cull the growing deer herd in a Fairfax County park. The 16 hunters bagged 11 deer.