Grim Harvest

Residents of Town & Country can't decide whether to slaughter hundreds of deer, move a few to rural acreage, or do a little of both. The Missouri Department of Conservation's best advice is lethal -- but the mayor is committing political suicide to save t

If you're a whitetail buck, this is your mating season, and you're looking fine. Eyes bright, coat sleek, velvet rubbed off antlers, right hoof stomping in anticipation. If you're a doe, you've stopped feeling shy; you extend your tail and step nimbly, head held high -- and if that doesn't work, you jump crazily to attract attention.

But if you're a resident of woodsy-genteel Town & Country, mating season just means more deer chomping on your ornamental shrubs or freezing in the path of your 4x4's headlights. Drawn to the area by real-estate ads promising "wildlife to enjoy," these residents have approved enough building and road-widening to decrease the native deer's habitat. Now the deer are intruding on their habitat.

Determined to resolve "the deer problem" in democratic fashion, Town & Country conducted a survey last month, receiving a record 20 percent response. Of the 792 residents who answered, 72 percent endorsed a "nonlethal solution." Armed with a mandate from the people, Town & Country's wildlife subcommittee found an expert willing to move the deer and several landowners willing to take them.

Then democracy got diverted. At Monday night's City Council meeting, people rose to say the survey was flawed, and as an affluent community, Town & Country's real mandate was to kill the deer and give the meat to area food pantries. Pantry directors rose to say they'd welcome the protein source, as long as it was processed in federally approved fashion. A resident rose to say if it was a choice between "those in need of food or the well-fed deer of Town & Country, I think we know who the superior animal is."

Burning with this conveniently coupled desire to feed the hungry and eliminate pesky deer, Ald. Mike Ruben amended the proposed ordinance sentence by sentence, until the plan had changed from translocating (moving) 75 deer to "harvesting and disseminating" (killing) a formula-dictated number (probably about 600 of the estimated 800-plus deer currently residing in Town & Country) over the next three years. Finally, he struck out the sentence that began, "Whereas the majority favor translocation" (although he later agreed to translocate a token 10 deer as an experiment).

When Mayor John D. Marx asked Ruben, "You want to kill how many deer?" a chorus of voices hastily corrected him with the preferred term: "harvest." "You use your word, I'll use mine," snapped Marx. He then broke official ranks to warn the council that although he would consider translocating 75, killing 25 and giving the meat to the hungry, he would veto Ruben's radical amendment to the ordinance.

Marx was promptly forced to step down as chair of the meeting because he'd taken an advocacy position. He strode from the room, one alderwoman exclaiming, "He can't tell us what to do!" and the council passed Ruben's plan 5-3.

Later that night, after the public and the media had left, the council rewrote the ordinance yet again, softening it to kill 100 does and translocate 50. The mayor isn't even sure the changed legislation is legal because of questions of whether the public was sufficiently informed.

"There are areas where it's a lot worse, where the deer have exceeded the ecological carrying capacity," remarks Marx. "Our deer are healthy; there is plenty of food. But we seem to have exceeded the cultural carrying capacity." He hits the distinction hard; personally, he sees no reason to decimate the deer, which will only reproduce faster if their numbers drop. "People are arrogant about God's gifts," he observes. "They're quick to bulldoze 150-year-old trees to build a $2 million house, and they're quick to load a gun. I think people should learn to live with the deer. They were here first."

They were indeed -- but then Town & Country said yes to scores of development projects, hemming the deer in with asphalt and freeway. With cars their only predators, the deer increased as their habitat decreased. The "deer problem" actually belongs to all of West County; deer used to roam across the Highway 40 corridor now studded with office parks. Town & Country has some of the best habitat, though -- Queeny Park and two other large pieces of land that resident Bruni Perez doesn't want named. Every time there's an article about this issue, "Hunters drive by, park their car and try to hit a deer."

Residents don't want bullets flying across their yards; in fact, they've made it illegal to discharge a firearm in Town & Country. They're not even wild about the bow-and-arrow poachers they already have. So when the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) offered to bring in professional sharpshooters or stage a managed hunt for amateurs, the municipality swiftly declined. The third lethal option, trapping the deer and "euthanizing" them with a bolt gun, remained open, but until Monday's meeting, members of the wildlife subcommittee were confident that a nonlethal solution -- the clear preference of the majority, as expressed in the survey -- would prevail.

The only obstacle they were worried about was the MDC, which currently does not issue a translocation permit, which would make the move legal. "There are two categories, lethal and nonlethal," explains Melissa Stern, an urban-wildlife biologist with MDC. "In lethal, there's the managed hunt, sharpshooting or trap-and-euthanasia. These are the most cost-effective strategies and the most effective in terms of reducing the population. The only nonlethal methods we have approved are deer-repellent sprays. Some people make homemade concoctions, everything from hair balls to Ivory soap."

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