The initial phase of Virginia’s first experiment with sterilizing deer, rather than killing them, has ended in Fairfax City. Anthony DeNicola of White Buffalo Inc., who oversaw the program and captured the deer, said 18 were spayed in six nights earlier this month. The plan is for DeNicola and his team of volunteers to return annually to spay the does and monitor the population size, in hopes that it gradually decreases by “natural” causes — hit by cars, killed by hunters, disease, old age — and avoids the need for lethal force in a densely populated city which measures only six square miles.

DeNicola said he had not yet devised a new estimate of the deer population of Fairfax City, which he previously placed at 50 to 75, pending further checks of cameras he placed in the woods and other data gathered. The program costs about $1,000 per sterilization, which is being paid for the first two years by Wildlife Rescue of Maryland. Fairfax City police did assign three officers per night to work overtime, both to assist DeNicola and ensure that no citizens were in harm’s way. Police Chief Rick Rappoport said the cost to taxpayers for the overtime was about $7,850.

The program involves shooting the deer with tranquilizer darts, each equipped with a tracking device. DeNicola and a volunteer or two hauled the deer back to Fairfax City police headquarters, where a surgical center was set up in the sallyport and two veterinarians performed an ovariectomy. The deer was tagged with a number and a neck collar. DeNicola and the volunteer then hauled the deer back where they found her, injected her with a drug to reverse the effects of some of the tranquilizers, and released her. From darting to release took about 90 minutes per deer. I followed along one night, here’s my account of that.

The program was approved by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as a research project, and is the first such project in Virginia. Neighboring areas such as Fairfax County, the District and Montgomery County have elected to hire sharpshooters, kill the deer and donate the meat to needy causes. Spaying is a somewhat more controversial approach, as you can see from the posted comments to any of my previous stories, but it is being tried by White Buffalo in small communities in New York, California, Missouri and Maryland. Early results there seem to show a 10 to 15 percent population drop per year, with limited migration of new deer from outside the targeted area. Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star outdoors columnist Ken Perrotte expressed great skepticism, and said “a sterilization option is a potential game-changer” for those pondering deer control.

Fairfax City Mayor Scott Silverthorne said Friday, “The program is off to a strong start with 18 deer captured, tagged and sterilized in the first year. Over the next several years, we will have concrete data that will help us determine this program’s success.”

Some readers asked whether the sterilization involved aborting any deer fetuses. DeNicola said no, that the uterus is not removed during the operation.

Feinberg of Wildlife Rescue said, “What I find most interesting is that in Anthony DeNicola’s expert opinion, Fairfax City did not, and he has confirmed does not,have a deer overpopulation problem. But here was a city council who was just one vote away from allowing hunting in their parks to deal with their ‘deer overpopulation,’ which does not exist. So it begs the question, are the deer really the problem, or is it the often false and inflamed hysteria about the deer the real problem?”