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Officials will try birth control for deer in overrun N.Y. village

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — When Mayor Peter Swiderski took office, he vowed to fulfill a campaign promise to do something about the deer, which are seemingly everywhere in this Hudson River village.

Hunting them was impractical in such a densely populated village. Another proposed method, “captive bolt,” which is used to stun or kill animals in slaughterhouses, was met with outrage in some corners. Soon, an e-mail with a doctored photograph of the mayor wearing a Hitler mustache started circulating, bearing the name Buck van Deer.

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The deer would have to be lured with bait and netted before they could be killed with a captive bolt.

“I realized there would be a public outcry every year and sabotage would be easy,” Swiderski said. “It only takes a few people with vials of coyote urine to drive the deer away.”

Now this bedroom community about 4 miles north of the Bronx border, known for its progressive politics, has settled on a less violent approach: birth control.

In an experiment to be undertaken with assistance from Tufts University’s Center for Animals and Public Policy, Hastings hopes to become the first suburb in the United States to control deer through immunocontraception, using the animals’ own immune system to prevent them from fertilizing offspring.

“It’s brilliant,” said Dr. Allen T. Rutberg, the center’s director, referring to the contraceptive vaccine, whose main ingredient, porcine zona pellucida, is extracted from pigs’ ovaries and prevents pregnancy. “It works on a lot of animals, even elephants.”

Hastings-on-Hudson and nearby communities in Westchester County struggle with some of the highest deer populations in New York. State officials rely on hunters to control the population, but hunting with firearms is prohibited in Westchester because of the population.

In 2011, there were 16 car collisions involving deer in Hastings. Swiderski contracted Lyme disease, transmitted by deer tick, as did his wife and child, and he has heard of scores of residents being treated for Lyme.

Deer can be seen languidly walking through the village, and they have expanded their palates, moving from longtime favorites like tulips to previously shunned plants like impatiens; the bottom of the village’s 100-acre wood is now mostly barren.

Rutberg, whose center is part of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, has researched deer contraception for years. To date, his work has focused on self-contained areas, like Fire Island in New York and the fenced-in campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

He has achieved reductions in population of 50 percent over five years. While Hastings is hemmed in by the Hudson River and the Saw Mill River Parkway, deer can easily head south from Dobbs Ferry or north from Yonkers, communities that are likewise overrun.

“Hastings will be challenging,” Rutberg said. “From a research perspective, islands make good subjects because you have some control over what goes on there. But if we really want to see if it will work in contexts where it matters, then we need more open communities, and Hastings will be the first one. The success of the project will depend at least as much on the deer as on us.”

Hastings, which measures about 2 square miles, is believed to be home to anywhere from 70 to 120 deer. Biologists and federal officials say that a maximum of five to 15 deer per square mile is tolerable. Some studies indicate that female deer can live their whole lives within a quarter-mile of where they were born. “It’s likely that 90 percent of the females we inject will be local,” Rutberg said.

That would bode well for the Hastings project, which could be undermined by a sudden influx of deer from other towns.

In May, Rutberg and Swiderski met with officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to discuss the use of contraception, and Rutberg plans to submit an application to the department within a month; the program could begin in the winter.

“They are skeptical,” Swiderski said. “They think migration will overwhelm the program unless it’s a closed system.”

Rutberg said the deer would be tranquilized, tagged, and injected with the vaccine once every two years.

More than 50 residents have volunteered to help with the effort. Some will track the movement of deer in their neighborhoods, recording their frequency and herd size.

Others will put out potted plants — perhaps oak seedlings and hostas — to see if their consumption by deer declines after the program gets underway. Still others, like Eve Martin, a local veterinarian, are willing to help with the injections.

The program is estimated to cost $30,000 for the first two years. An animal rights group has donated $12,000 to the effort, and Swiderski is confident that the village can raise the rest.

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