Update, Dec. 21: This is an expanded version of my original post from Dec. 18. The new version appears in Saturday’s print edition:
As the District and its highly populated suburbs grapple with controlling their deer populations, Fairfax City is planning a new approach: Tranquilize and capture all the female deer in the city, take them to a surgical table and remove their ovaries to keep them from reproducing. If the city receives clearance from the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, officials said, it will be the first jurisdiction in Virginia to try the surgical sterilization approach.
Fairfax City Mayor Scott Silverthorne said city officials felt that the deer population was “exploding into the city.” But with 23,000 residents in six square miles, there was only one space — a golf course — where homes were far enough removed for hunting to occur legally. He said the city was looking for a humane alternative and that a group of animal rights activists connected him to Anthony J. DeNicola, a wildlife ecologist who has been involved in deer population research for 25 years.
In the past four years, DeNicola and his nonprofit group, White Buffalo, have launched surgical sterilization programs in Baltimore County; Cayuga Heights, N.Y.; Town and Country, Mo.; and San Jose, Calif. With Fairfax City prepared to join the project, the research database will grow in examining the effectiveness of humanely reducing the herds, which destroy vegetation, carry diseased ticks and leap in front of moving vehicles. DeNicola said that he studied the possibility of sterilizing deer by vaccine but that vaccines aren’t strong enough to last.
“We’ve tried to refine a method,” said DeNicola, which “is humane and can afford a level of practicality to go into a community and intervene, preferably before it becomes a problem.”
In three of the towns where surgical sterilization has begun, deer are dying at a rate of about 10 percent of the herd per year without being replaced, DeNicola and local officials said. “Within a few years,” said Enid Feinberg of Wildlife Rescue, which is overseeing the project in Baltimore County, “there’s going to be about 50 percent fewer deer” without any hunting involved.
In Fairfax City, the sterilization process will not cost the taxpayers money. A group of private donors agreed to fund a two-year grant to White Buffalo specifically to cover the cost of the city’s project, and Feinberg said Wildlife Rescue will cover any cost overruns. The cost is about $1,000 per doe.
Silverthorne said he wasn’t convinced that managed deer hunts such as those in Fairfax County, which surrounds his city, had been having any impact on the deer population. Feinberg likened the managed deer hunts to cutting grass, saying that the deer population just keeps coming back.
DeNicola toured Fairfax City with Police Chief Rick Rappoport over several nights recently and estimated that the city has only 50 to 75 deer. He told Silverthorne and the Fairfax City Council last week that the city didn’t have problematic deer density yet but was taking a smart step by acting before the deer population grew out of control. The council voted 5 to 1 last week to approve the sterilization program.
The process begins with shooting female deer, or does, with tranquilizer darts, which are equipped with a tracking device so the deer can be found after they are shot. DeNicola said a tranquilized deer is then taken to the city’s police headquarters, where a surgical table is set up and the ovaries removed in a procedure that takes less than 15 minutes.
DeNicola and his team can process dozens of deer in a short time. In two weeks in Cayuga Heights last year, his team captured and sterilized 137 does, out of a total population of about 230 in just 1.84 square miles. This year, they found only 12 unsterilized does, and Mayor Kate Supron said they think 99 percent of does have been sterilized. Meanwhile, about 15 deer have died — from natural causes, car accidents or wandering into a hunting area — without being replaced.
Supron said she was pleased with the results so far, but “it’s expensive and we need to make sure it’s fiscally sustainable.” She said Cayuga Heights was expecting an annual decrease in the deer population of 10 to 15 percent.
In Phoenix, Md., just north of Baltimore, observers “could not be happier,” Feinberg said. In 2011, 33 does were sterilized. This year, only nine needed to be. The number of does sterilized has dropped from 33 in 2011 to nine this year. She said deer browsing on vegetation has decreased significantly, which biologists think is because a smaller number of pregnant deer means less demand for food.
Deer typically do not migrate from one area to another but will do so in response to intensive managed hunts, DeNicola said. He said he hoped to use nearby Vienna, with no hunts or sterilization, as a control group to help officials judge the effectiveness of Fairfax City’s program.
I recently went for a run through Daniels Run Park in Fairfax City, and at the top of a hill I approached a doe who stood absolutely still. I ran closer, and this deer did not move. She had two smaller deer behind her. I came within four feet, decided against trying to pull out my phone and snap a photo, and kept going, while the doe stayed firmly in place. “It’s clear that your deer have made themselves quite at home,” DeNicola said, but that’s good for his program. It allows his team to get much closer and fire the tranquilizer darts.
DeNicola said he hopes to train others to take over the program eventually. Rappoport said the cost to the police was minimal and he supported the program. Silverthorne said, “We’re going to have a lot of data when this is all said and done.”
Here is video of DeNicola’s briefing to the Fairfax City Council and their discussion of it: