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Reston permits a deer hunt in a residential neighborhood, update on Fairfax City project

In the ongoing debate over our how to treat our deer neighbors in Northern Virginia, several homeowners in one Reston subdivision ran out of ways to stop a large herd of deer from heavily grazing the vegetation and possibly bringing ticks and Lyme disease around. So they polled the (human) neighbors and found much support for a controlled bow hunt, and after a public hearing last week, the Reston Association approved the hunt on three half-acre lots in the Hunters Woods (really!) section of Reston. Elsewhere, in Fairfax City where hunting is not allowed, a program to sterilize does captured about 30 percent of the females in its first phase, according to a newly released report.

The Reston application by Larry and Jan Gsellman, and the neighbors on either side of their home on Sourwood Lane near Glade Drive, was well-researched and well-presented to the Reston Association, which has its own regulations on deer hunting in addition to those set by Virginia and Fairfax County, and all allow hunting on private property. The Gsellmans reported that about a dozen deer were seen around Sourwood Lane at all hours, and that they planned to hire Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia, which has extensive experience taking down deer in our area. The application and approval were first reported by Karen Goff at Reston Now.

The Gsellmans noted that Lyme disease is on the rise in Fairfax County, though not in their immediate neighborhood, and that deer can carry the ticks that spread the disease. But they were more concerned with the large destruction of vegetation and biodiversity, and the possible long term effects on erosion and the environment, as reasons to bring in the bow hunters. A couple of neighbors objected, saying they appreciated the deer and wanted to peacefully coexist with them, but most neighbors wanted the deer out, if done safely. Chemical treatments and pastes did not deter the Sourwood Lane deer, the Gsellmans said. The hunts are to be conducted at least 50 yards from a residence, by trained hunters, done from tree stands so that arrows are shot downward, and signs posted to warn people when they are being conducted. The homeowners must notify their insurance companies of the hunts, the hunters must be insured and the hunters or homeowners must retrieve any animals who wind up outside their property, Reston’s rules state.

After a public hearing last Thursday, the Reston Association’s Board of Directors approved the hunt, which board president Ken Knueven said was the fourth such approval in Reston in the last 10 years. “We put some significant restrictions on allowing it to happen,” Knueven said. He said most of the public comments favored the hunt, the neighbors supported it, and “we have to allow it if they meet the restrictions in place at the state and local level. They’re within their rights.”

Knueven said Reston would be taking a wider look at the issue this fall, and “I think we need to address this by tying it to the bigger efforts being made by the county and state,” such as the hunts run by Fairfax County. “If we’re all doing it together maybe we can have a greater impact.” David Burns, a Reston resident who spoke against the hunt, said he urged the Reston board to “defer this until you can put this into the broader perspective of overall deer management.” He also felt that a wider discussion about deer had yet to occur in Reston, originally designed as an ecologically friendly community. With a population of 60,000 though, it is the second most populous area in Northern Virginia, after Alexandria, and may have a harder taking the approach begun by Fairfax City.

In Fairfax City, population 23,000, the city council banned hunting. But they became concerned about a seemingly growing deer population, so last winter they hired White Buffalo Inc., run by wildlife biologist Anthony J. DeNicola, to capture and sterilize does, and also to do a “deer census,” both by observation and the use of 12 fixed cameras in the trees around the 2.2-square-mile city. DeNicola rode through the city in late January and early February, shooting tranquilizer darts into does, hauling them up to the police garage and then having them surgically sterilized by local veterinarians. They were tagged and returned to where they were found.

DeNicola prepared a report in May, which is below, outlining his findings. Between the cameras and the darting, DeNicola estimated there were 91 deer in Fairfax City, about 60 of which are female. The density would be 5.6 deer per square kilometer. (By comparison, a similar set of cameras in Vienna found about 149 deer, or 13.1 per square kilometer.) DeNicola sterilized 18, or about 30 percent of the does. The cost of the project was subsidized by private donors from Humane Deer Management and Enid Feinberg’s Wildlife Rescue in Maryland, where a similar program is showing great success at reducing the deer population.

DeNicola said his efforts were hampered because he couldn’t use searchlights on private property and he was prohibited from using bait to attract deer. Both of those hurdles have been removed and DeNicola hopes that when he returns next winter, he will be able to sterilize 90 percent of the female deer population. A more detailed look at deer sterilization programs and their overall impact on deer population, by the Humane Society of the United States, is here. DeNicola was also approved this week to conduct the same program in East Hampton, N.Y., on Long Island.

And here is DeNicola’s first report on deer sterilization in Fairfax City: