Sharing your neighborhood with the wild creatures who naturally inhabit it is one thing.
But when Ellen Bowditch realized she was routinely looking out her window to see 10 deer staring back at her, or driving up to her Lake Ridge home only to be confronted by three or four deer with no intention of darting off the driveway, she was no longer in the mood to coexist.
“It’s not so much like we’re sharing,” she said. “It’s kind of like they’ve taken over.”
Her statement drew knowing laughter from many of her neighbors, who had packed into a standing-room-only public meeting at Chinn Park Regional Library to share their concerns about the deer.
While other Northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Fairfax County and Fairfax City have mounted aggressive campaigns to reduce the deer population, using methods including police sharpshooters, volunteer archery brigades and surgical sterilization, Prince William County has no official program for culling the rising numbers of deer on the county’s roads and in residents’ backyards.
At Monday’s meeting, residents filled all of the 100 chairs in the room, and about 50 more people stood around the edges to hear just how serious the county’s deer problem is, and what they can and cannot do about it.
County Supervisor Michael May had convened the meeting. Brian Lee, a May staffer who was present at the meeting, said that the Board of County Supervisors may take action based on residents’ comments about the situation.
Kevin Rose, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, explained that suburban backyards are actually a better habitat for deer than naturally occurring woodlands. They get more sunlight and more food, while the presence of humans deters predators such as wolves and mountain lions. As Prince William County has become less rural, the deer population has exploded.
“When we create suburbia, we’re not tearing down deer habitat. We’re actually creating more,” Rose said.
Rose and Charles Smith, an ecologist who has managed Fairfax County’s deer-reduction programs, explained the effect of deer overpopulation on plants and other wildlife as well as the options available for reducing their numbers. These include trapping deer and transferring them to other parts of the state; using contraceptives or surgery to prevent their reproduction; and killing them.
The scientists said killing the deer is the only effective method. Trapping and transferring them is difficult, and more than half the deer usually die in the process, Rose said. And he said that sterilization is expensive — Fairfax City performed the surgery on just 18 does this year. Each procedure cost about $1,000, paid for by a research group, plus $436 in police overtime. Contraceptives are also expensive, and there is insufficient proof that they are effective.
Rose told attendees that they could use fences, chemicals and home remedies like garlic and soap to protect their plants from deer. But he noted that those methods had only limited usefulness. A deer, starting from a stand-still, can jump over a six-foot fence “like we’d jump over a curb,” Rose said. And no matter how bad those rotten eggs that you spray on your plants taste, “a hungry deer will eat it no matter what.”
Many attendees asked whether they could shoot deer on their own property. Prince William Police Lt. Kevin Brown explained that archers must be at least 100 yards from an occupied residence, while those hunting with guns must be on a five-acre property, among other restrictions.
Some residents expressed concern about car accidents caused by deer, and Smith included graphic post-accident photographs in his slide show.
Rose suggested that the county could install fences to prevent deer from crossing roads, or build tunnels under roadways so that deer can walk from one side to the other. It could also install signs that alert motorists when a deer has been picked up by a nearby sensor. Other remedies, such as reflectors on the road and whistles that drivers affix to their cars, generally do not work, he said.
He noted that some people — tourists who visit Virginia’s parks to see wildlife, and animal protection advocates who oppose killing healthy animals, for example — see no need to reduce the deer population. But when Rose asked if Prince William residents wanted a county-wide deer reduction program, almost everyone in the room applauded, and dozens shouted “Yes!”