WESTON — The limited bow-hunting program adopted in Weston last year, and being challenged by a proposed hunting ban this spring, will neither significantly reduce the deer population nor halt the spread of Lyme disease, according to authorities at a forum organized by an antihunting group.
“I began studying deer and Lyme 20 years ago in grad school, and nothing has changed. Not the arguments, not people’s reactions,” said Laura Simon, a wildlife ecologist with the Humane Society of the United States, during the Wednesday night session at Weston Public Library. “And in all that time, I can’t point to a single community where a bow-hunting program has had any impact on managing the deer population or reducing the spread of Lyme disease.”
Weston, like most wooded suburbs, has an estimated deer population of 25 per square mile, and a steady stream of complaints about cars hitting deer, deer eating landscaping in yards, and even deer damaging the woods by over-foraging on flora. At the same time, the town has experienced the same rise in reports of Lyme disease as other suburban areas in Massachusetts.
Jay Kirkpatrick, inducted into the Wild Horse and Burro Exposition Hall of Fame for his success in controlling wild horse populations through birth-control drugs, told residents at the gathering that the town needs to look at the issue from another angle.
“You talk about deer-car collisions, damage to shrubbery — not one of those is the problem,” said Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Mont. “Reproduction is the problem and unless you attack reproduction, it is like giving aspirin to someone with brain cancer. You get temporary relief but you don’t solve any problems.”
Last year the Board of Selectmen acted on the recommendation of the town’s Conservation Commission and approved a deer management program that gave permits to 26 hunters; they killed 18 deer between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31.
Counting the 24 deer killed in car collisions reported last year in Weston, and another 18 killed by hunters on private property, 60 deer were cut from the local population, said Conservation Commission member Brian Donahue. The figure could be as high as 84, based on the state’s estimate that half of all car accidents with deer go unreported, he said.
“That is having a significant impact on the rate of growth. Our goal is to reach 100 per year, which wildlife biologists tell us will be enough to stabilize and even reduce the population. We are not so far from that,” Donahue said.
During the winter, the antihunting group Weston Deer Friends collected enough signatures to put the proposed ban on all hunting on public property before voters at Town Meeting, which begins May 13. The ban would have no effect on hunting on private property.
Deer Friends cofounder Alicia Primer said she feared the forum — titled “Living with Deer and Without Lyme Disease” — would draw few residents just a week after the Conservation Commission held a program on deer management. She was happily surprised at the standing-room-only crowd.
“I was afraid people would be deer-ed out by now,” said Primer.
Kirkpatrick said politics and the business of hunting have kept communities like Weston from considering more effective means of controlling deer, such as the immunocontraceptive he has used to control populations of 85 species worldwide, including white-tailed deer on Fire Island in New York.
“Let me tell you, there are two types of people on Fire Island — deer lovers and deer haters,” Kirkpatrick said. It took two years of study and preparation, he said, before the first deer were given the contraceptive, via dart gun, in 1995.
By 2005, the deer population on Fire Island had dropped by 70 percent, he said. “The deer haters love it, because there aren’t so many deer now, and the deer lovers love it because no deer were killed.”
The town’s conservation agent, Michele Grzenda, who attended the Weston Deer Friends discussion, said she agrees that contraceptives would work on urban deer that have become accustomed to human contact, but says that is not the situation in Weston.
“Weston’s deer are just as wild as deer I have seen around the country,” Grzenda said. “Therefore, immunocontraception is not a viable option . . .
“If Weston wants to reduce the deer population, bow hunting is the only low-cost and practical solution.”