Rapidly growing deer populations are proving to be a big challenge for scientists and local residents alike, says a Tufts expert.
No. Grafton, Mass. [11.15.02] A hundred years ago, the U.S. deer population was a sparse 500,000. Today, experts estimate that 20 million deer roam the nation - in both rural and suburban settings. To help address the havoc wreaked on local ecosystems by the growing deer population, leading experts like Tufts professor Allen Rutberg are looking for innovative ways to deal with the problem.
"In the last decade, from the Rockies to New England and the Deep South, rural and suburban areas have been beset by white-tailed deer gnawing shrubbery and crops, spreading disease and causing hundreds of thousands of auto wrecks," The New York Times reported this week. "Fast-multiplying herds are altering the ecology of forests, stripping them of native vegetation and eliminating niches for other wildlife."
Now experts are trying to solve the problem of overpopulation -- which is exacerbated by decreased popularity of hunting, elimination of natural predators, and adept adaptation of the deer to suburban settings.
"Deer turned out to be uniquely suited to our 20th-century habitats," Tufts professor Allen Rutberg told The Wall Street Journal last year.
Rutberg - an expert at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts Veterinary School - has been studying the problem of deer overpopulation for more than a decade. Before joining the Tufts faculty, he was Senior Scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, where he led the wildlife contraceptive program -- specifically focusing on deer and wild horses.
For the last 11 years, the Tufts expert has been studying the effectiveness of a contraceptive for deer - called immunocontraception-as one option for population control. By this method, sharp shooters hit doe with dart guns that contain the chemical contraception.
The method has effectively reduced the deer population in places such as Fire Island in New York, earning praise from the Humane Society and other animal welfare groups
While immunocontraception has proved promising for some areas, Rutberg says it is merely the tip of the iceberg to controlling the deer - animals which, by causing more than 100 deaths per year in traffic accidents, are deadlier than sharks, alligators, bears, and rattlesnakes combined.
"Currently, neither we nor anybody else can manage the entire deer population of a 10 square-mile township with immunocontraception," Rutberg told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.
The Tufts scientist says that while experts are working to reduce the population, people also need to change their habits to accept the presence of these creatures.
"People should finally get used to having deer around and adjust to that," Rutberg told the Times. "They're going to be a fact of life, like drought and storms."