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

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."

Hair balls aren't going to thin Town & Country's herd from 80-plus deer per square mile to 26 per square mile, though. That's Ruben's goal, because that's the ratio MDC recommends. And it's the ratio they recommend because it's what other states have recommended. "I'd like to achieve their recommendation," insists Ruben, "for lack of a better recommendation." He favors trap-and-euthanasia because it's "quick and simple, and then we would give the meat to the food pantries. We have people in the St. Louis metropolitan area who need the protein."

Not all food banks want pounds and pounds of venison, though. If it's not inspected according to federal guidelines, serving it can jeopardize federal funding. Instead of Ruben's "harvest and disseminate" plan, one resident suggested simply donating all the money they'd save by translocating the deer. Another muttered that you could provide the poor with more balanced meals just by passing out Town & Country's table scraps.

After listening to Town & Country's initial arguments, MDC is now willing to discuss legalizing translocation. They say they haven't allowed it in the past because they consider it inhumane -- which is a bit ironic, considering that's how Town & Country's deer got there in the first place. "Whitetail were almost extirpated in the early 1900s," explains Stern. "So the Department of Conservation, in the late '30s through the '50s, began an active program of restocking the population -- which was done through translocation."

Today, several rural Missouri landowners -- including one with 4,700 acres -- are willing to take Town & Country's deer. Bob Littlefield, a Texan wildlife expert with 28 years experience of translocating wild animals, mainly hooved, is willing to move them. He'll charge $150 per deer plus expenses -- half the $300 MDC wants to trap and kill and process them.

Ruben doesn't like the translocation option. He says, "In the literature, most places have simply transferred the problem from the urban to the rural area and have experienced a high percentage of deaths, some during the translocation, some afterward by being hunted, being hit by cars or starving." Marx doesn't mind the deer being hunted a few weeks of the year after they're moved; at least that way, they've got a fighting chance. MDC experts insist that moving deer is stressful, with high fatalities and low long-term survival rates.

"Hunting's all death loss," notes Littlefield dryly. He says he's moved lions and 1,000-pound elk; he says he's driven 498 whitetail and mule deer 14 hours -- as a gift from Texas Gov. George Bush Jr. to the governor of Nuevo Leon in Mexico -- and lost fewer than 20. "I get more satisfaction out of fooling with live animals than dead ones." First he sets up drop nets on 10-foot posts and pre-feeds the area with deer's favorite snack, dried corn. After the nets drop, he says "most of the deer become quite docile and lie flat down. They do beller and bawl, but there is nothing hurting them."

Instead of shooting the deer with a tranquilizer and carrying them upside down by their thin legs, Littlefield and his son and longtime partner, Tommy, unroll them one at a time. "We're like a single pair of hands," explains Littlefield. "I'll work on the right side, run one arm over the top of the back and under and lift the front end, and my son will work on the other side. I've been scarred up," he grins, "had one bust my lip wide open. It's not trying to be macho or anything, it's just a lot easier on the animal. I can jump on a deer and put him on the ground, but they are not meant to be done that way."

According to Littlefield, people only think translocation is inhumane because it's seldom done right. People will tranquilize the deer while transporting them, which can cause "the deer to bloat or salivate and actually suffocate themselves." Littlefield's trailers are "darkened and rubber-floored. We bed 'em up with clean dry hay, use antiseptic if going from a diseased area. I get paid by them being alive and well when I arrive." Months after a move, he still claims low mortality; in Texas, they move animals into vast, high-fenced enclosures where "you can keep track of what dies."

Does MDC object to this kind of translocation, spurning tranquilizers during the move and using them only as a last resort during the initial capture? Stern says she's "not really familiar with that method, but any kind of capture is going to be stressful." (Murmurs one resident: "Is it less stressful to shoot them in the head with a bolt gun and eat them?")

"Certainly you want someone experienced," continues Stern, "but the cost estimates seemed a bit low." That's a problem? First MDC said translocation wasn't an option because it was too expensive. They're not even the ones paying -- and Ruben's amendment tripled the allocation for deer management, setting aside $100,000 without a quibble. (At 11:30 p.m. they cut it to $50,000.)

Without the quite-separate issue of human hunger to sop Town & Country's conscience and MDC's historical position to bolster their plan, Ruben could never have swung Monday night's vote. So why isn't a "conservation" department more interested in conserving healthy wildlife?

"This is the Midwest," sighs Perez, a member of Town & Country's wildlife subcommittee. "Deer are game. And that's what MDC does -- it regulates hunts. That is their expertise. It is hard for them to move away from lethal options." Indeed, when an alderman asked why, if the state owns the deer, Town & Country has to pay to remove them, MDC wildlife expert Jeff Beringer replied, "Our way of managing deer is through hunting, which doesn't cost anything but creates revenue for us."

Anyone who's ever read the Missouri Conservationist knows that in the state agency's context, "conservation" often means hunting. A recent blurb in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announcing a new MDC hunter-education program began, "Women who have wondered what it's like to bag a white-tailed deer...." An MDC news release gloated, "Conditions are right for another great firearms deer harvest." And though MDC claims neutrality in the Town & Country issue, a reporter from KTVI (Channel 2) interviewed MDC experts and then announced that "Town & Country has one of the worst deer overpopulations in the area."

By whose count? According to MDC's Web site, "The Conservation Department monitors the attitudes of the two groups most affected by deer abundance: farmers and hunters." The missing group -- nature-lovers -- would concede overpopulation and might even support managed hunts, if these deer were starving. But they're fat and sleek; the real problem is all the stolen flower-heads, landscaped shrubs and birdseed that keep them that way.

MDC's bias isn't unique: Historically, many state departments of "conservation" have stronger ties to hunting than to environmentalism. Today, the epoxy cementing those ties is money: MDC's 1998 budget estimated nearly 1.2 million fishing and hunting permits, and 395,000 of them were deer-hunting licenses, which bring in $11-$15 apiece. Still, according to U.S. Department of the Interior census figures, only 7 percent of the population are hunters. And if Town & Country's wildlife supporters are any indication, the nonhunters are ready to demand some representation for their views.

"In other parts of the country," notes Marx, "the state departments of conservation have been progressive in testing deer-control efforts like immuno-contraception, or openly supporting relocation." Texas, reports Littlefield, has an entire board and office dedicated to wildlife translocation. As for experimenting with immuno-contraception, Stern's response is that "no drugs are officially approved by the Food & Drug Administration."

Asked whether MDC has a bias toward hunting, she replies, "Years ago perhaps that was some people's perception," pointing out that the lion's share of revenue comes from a fractional share of sales taxes. "Our mission is to protect the forest, fish and wildlife resources of the state."

What about the less drastic, everyday measures that might help control the problem? Perez simply plants things deer don't like, and "what they like that I like, I plant in the flowerbed and use the appropriate repellents. All that I have in my yard serves a purpose: it gives refuge to birds, I have a brush pile where rabbits can hide, and I have a little corner in the back where anybody can eat, including the deer."

Other residents wail about the deer foraging in their gardens, destroying vegetation and unbalancing the ecosystem. People point to freak occurrences, like the panicked deer that crashed through one family's kitchen window -- denting the refrigerator on the way -- and wandered around the house bleeding.

About 4 percent of reported road accidents in Town & Country involve deer -- 10 so far this year, according to the local police chief -- and the number goes up to 24 if you count the suspected, unreported accidents (witness the slain deer on the side of the road). MDC and Town & Country have tried illuminating the wildlife warning signs, but it hasn't helped. Wildlife supporters have handed out deer whistles, but MDC insists they don't work. ("I don't think the department wants to support safety," comments one resident. "The more mayhem there is, the more they can do what they want.")

Of course, there's another solution: Slow down, especially at dawn and dusk. If you see a doe cross the road, remember that her fawns may be close behind her, and unlike many human families, they'll risk crossing and recrossing to stay together. Finally, pay special attention during mating season, when 60 percent of the collisions occur.

"Some parts of the country have put up fencing," notes Marx, "but it has to be an 11-foot fence, and there doesn't seem to be the public will to do that. People don't want to fence in Queeny Park." Stern's response: "You mean try to fence the deer in? That hasn't come up."

Stephen Kellert, a professor of forestry at Yale University who's written extensively about the complexities of human-animal relations, says fencing yards is a good option, but it's expensive and unpopular. Ultimately, he says, "it's not a question of managing the deer, it's a question of managing the people. The deer will regulate themselves one way or another." His opinion of translocation? "I think if they (handle the deer) one at a time, and people are willing to pay for it, and there is a place to bring them, it's a definite option." What about trap-and-euthanasia? "That's pretty grim. It's a slaughter.

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