Deer in Montgomery County enjoy many of the conveniences of modern life in the suburbs: abundant food, few predators, a little room to spread out. Oh yes, and contraception.
Since the mid-1990s, deer on the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg have been able to rut without regret, thanks to a contraceptive program administered by the Humane Society of the United States.
Now deer living on federal property in White Oak, in the eastern part of the county, are being injected with a different contraceptive that will prevent pregnancy by keeping them from going into heat. This scientific advance -- the no-sex deer -- is the result of research conducted by the Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center.
This month, the center is capturing 40 to 60 does at White Oak, half of which will be injected with the no-sex contraceptive. The other half will serve as a control group. All will be tagged and fitted with radio collars for monitoring.
The goal is a one-shot deer contraceptive that would offer those in charge of managing deer populations a realistic alternative to killing.
Deer populations have boomed in the past century, causing communities across the country to find ways to shrink the size of herds. In most cases, officials have used hunters or sharpshooters to cull deer, but animal rights activists and others have called for the development of a deer contraceptive.
"It's kind of the Holy Grail of [deer contraception]: to come up with something that you could inject once and have it work for five years or so," said Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
That is exactly the goal of the White Oak trial. The contraceptive works by inducing antibodies to attack a hormone necessary for reproduction -- the vaccine effectively shuts down the animals' reproductive systems. In tests the wildlife research center has conducted at Pennsylvania State University, researchers have found that vaccinated does do not go into estrus, or heat, and that bucks don't rut.
"We believe it's effective for two to three years," said Kathleen A. Fagerstone, acting director of the center.
The technology in use at NIST involves the deer's immune system in a different way. That vaccine uses a protein from pigs to generate antibodies that render the eggs of the female deer impervious to sperm. One disadvantage is that the vaccine requires annual booster shots.
Canadian biologists have developed a one-shot vaccine using similar technology, but their product, known as SpayVac, does not eliminate heat and rutting. "It's really quite elegant," said Mark A. Fraker, president of SpayVac-for-Wildlife Inc. "The animals maintain their normal behavior; they just don't get pregnant."
None of these products has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, so their use is limited to experimental trials. As part of the process, the deer are tagged with a warning that they are not to be consumed by humans. And because it's impossible to tell in any other way whether a deer has been vaccinated, each one is tagged for identification.
A contraceptive program has been underway at Fire Island, N.Y., since the early 1990s. Since then, perhaps a half-dozen other communities have hosted contraceptive trials, but the method requires money and patience. Anthony J. DeNicola, a biologist who runs a nonprofit wildlife management firm, White Buffalo Inc., said the best solution might be a combination of lethal culling and contraception. He advises communities to tag, mark and vaccinate the most approachable deer in a target population "and kill all the others."
Contraception is expensive, largely because of the cost of capturing deer. SpayVac's Fraker estimates that a contraception program can cost from $300 to $500 per deer; inviting hunters in to use lethal means, can, in many cases, be free.
The institute's program has reduced the size of the herd on the institute's 578-acre campus from a late-1990s peak of 320 to 200, Newman said.
The no-sex contraceptive might have an additional advantage if the goal is to prevent deer from becoming a nuisance or a threat to humans. Eliminating rutting, which can make deer oblivious to such things as vehicles in their surroundings, could cut down on the number of collisions between deer and cars -- one of the main reasons communities want to reduce their deer populations. But at the same time, scientists have no idea what other ramifications might ensue from suppressing the urge to mate.
Contraception has some practical merits in suburban settings where lethal culling is too dangerous because of the proximity of people. At both the institute and White Oak, the experimentation with deer contraception derives from an additional factor: the apparent squeamishness of federal workers.
In the case of the institute, said spokesman Newman, "hunting was not a popular alternative within the staff." At White Oak, where the FDA is moving into a 130-acre spread once occupied by the Navy, the new tenants "had expressed [a] preference" for contraception over hunting, Fagerstone said.