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The Deer Decision
by Helen Fosgate

Nasty letters. Threatening phone calls. Lawsuits, injunctions, appeals.
Not exactly what you’d expect from a scientific research project in the midst of an exclusive beach community. Especially a project centered on the most docile of creatures: deer.

Wildlife ecology professor Bob Warren and his graduate students had no idea the firestorm their study would ignite. Community leaders struggling with a deer population that was growing out of control had invited the UGA team to Sea Pines, an upscale enclave on the southern tip of Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Residents complained about the rising number of deer-car collisions, extensive damage to landscape plants and the threat of tick bites and Lyme disease. The scientists were challenged to define the scope of the problem and recommend solutions: How many deer were in Sea Pines? Was it possible to control their numbers without killing them? If so, what would it involve and how much would it cost

Warren designed a four-year series of studies that provided a detailed picture of the situation — and led community leaders to the sinking realization that there wouldn’t be any painless solutions.

“It’s a deer problem or a people problem, depending on your perspective,” Warren said with a shrug.

Among Warren’s findings: The deer population on Sea Pines is about four times larger than the average number per acre on undeveloped barrier islands. Living off a smorgasbord of fertilized azaleas and hostas, the deer are in top condition and reproduce rapidly. Researchers found that nine-month-old healthy pregnant does normally deliver twins. Studies show it isn’t feasible to relocate deer on Hilton Head. Relocated deer either return to Sea Pines from the north end of the island or continue shrubbery-munching in new neighborhoods.

The most troubling recommendation though — and the one that sent some concerned residents to lawyers — was this: Although chemical fertility control might stabilize the deer population, the herd first would have to be reduced. Without killing perhaps 100 to 150 animals, the logistics and high costs of delivering fertility control compounds to hundreds of animals would simply be overwhelming. Even then, without the initial herd reduction, it could take five to 10 years or more before deer numbers actually decline.

Opponents to deer reduction plans organized, protested and filed suit against the Sea Pines Community Services Association, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the University of Georgia. Their position: Leave the deer alone and let nature take its course.

But to wildlife officials, there’s nothing natural about the deer situation on Hilton Head. Hunting has been prohibited for decades, and other than automobiles, the deer have no significant predators. Designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1971, the island today is more like a densely developed nature theme park where wildlife and humans mingle — and increasingly collide. The number of deer-car collisions on Sea Pines rose from 18 in 1993 to 61 in 1999.

Those opposed to managing the deer population say people should drive more cautiously and plant deer-resistant landscape shrubs. But only a few of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Hilton Head each year are even aware of the deer problem. Community leaders and many residents, too, believe controlling the deer population is their responsibility, a cost they acce pt along with the privilege of living on an island sanctuary.

“It’s not a question of whether deer on Sea Pines should be controlled, but how,” Warren said. “Is it more humane for deer to die quickly at the hands of sharpshooters or on the windshield of a car, where the collision may also maim or possibly kill a driver?”

Ironically, the Community Services Association requested and funded the research in an effort to head off exactly the reaction they ultimately received. They held public meetings and educational seminars to help explain the difficult decisions they were facing. They won two lower court rulings, but opponents appealed and the case went to the South Carolina Supreme Court in June. The association has spent more than $175,000 defending their deer control plan, which has the approval of the South Carolina Department of Natural Re-sources.

The case highlights the difficult role of wildlife managers, who, like the deer, often find themselves caught between nature and modern life. Since he began his research, Warren has been contacted by community leaders in several other coastal communities that face the same problem. All want to begin deer control programs soon — and avoid the litigation they’ve seen at Sea Pines.

It could be months before the South Carolina Supreme Court makes its ruling, but it may finally end the two-year legal battle over this research. In the meantime, Warren and colleagues hope to resume their work, which may eventually help humans and deer live more harmoniously on Sea Pines.

E-mail warren@smokey.forestry.uga.edu for more information.


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deer control

Although chemical fertility control might stabalize the staggering number of deer in Sea Pines, a small community on Hilton Head Island, GA., the herd first would need to be reduced in size. (Photo courtesy of Bob Warren)