- Local News
- Ad Directory
The first outing was tricky–and was indeed a first.
On Bald Head Island, a wildlife crew in the second week of January set out to tranquilize 20 to 30 white-tailed female deer and inject them with a drug to prevent their reproduction–seen as a humane alternative in the island’s longrunning deer population control program, which previously used a lethal approach.
But the cold, rainy weather was just one challenge that resulted in the mission–said to be the first of its kind in North Carolina, after several years of talk and study–only reaching eight females, not enough for the “immunocontraception” program to be truly successful.
So they’re setting out again for another week, starting Friday. With a few lessons learned in the first round, and with a new strategy, they’re hopeful they can hit their target.
“I think we’ve addressed a lot of the challenges that we experienced the first time,” said Nicki Dardinger, director of conservation at the Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC), a nonprofit and lead partner in the operation.
“We’ve just got to cross our fingers for the weather,” said Suzanne Dorsey, BHIC’s executive director. “So far, it’s starting to get cold again at the end of the week, but not so bitterly cold that the deer won’t be active.”
That was a problem the first time, they said. It was miserably cold, rainy and windy–which wasn’t a big deal for the humans involved.
“The deer bedded down, and they weren’t active, which made it really hard,” said Dorsey.
But that wouldn’t have been such an issue on its own, she said. The team also had some darting equipment issues, and the island’s maritime forest posed yet another layer of difficulty.
The contract darter’s experience was more with thinner woods, while Bald Head Island’s maritime forest is lush, thick and healthy, officials explained. When the darts hit the deer, they would scamper into the forest a distance before losing consciousness, meaning they weren’t always easy to find.
“We’ve always maintained and managed our deer, so we’ve got a healthy forest as a result,” said Dorsey. “Good news for our forests, bad news for trying to track the deer.”
The forest–which an unchecked deer herd could severely overgraze–is the main beneficiary in deer management, according to BHIC. Others have noted that an overbreeding herd can mean a sick herd, given the level of competition for food. The island has worked to limit the species’ population for more than a decade.
The chief darter, with a Connecticut nonprofit wildlife management company called White Buffalo Inc., had initially figured the operation could hit a good number of deer by way of “shots of opportunity”–by simply driving around the island and spotting deer.
But that didn’t yield well. The deer actually seemed wary of the operation, partners said.
So comes a new strategy.
“We are, this time, really focusing on the use of [corn] bait sites, which we think will be a much better way to attract the deer and successfully dart the deer,” said Dardinger, adding the team has worked closely with property owners for the best sites to use. They’ll man them, across the island, in the late afternoon and early evening and will keep their eyes peeled otherwise for those opportunity shots.
“I think that is going to be a great help this time,” she said.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, a state agency, permitted the operation, which allows the use of a drug called GonaCon to vaccinate the animals against reproductive abilities. The Environmental Protection Agency approves of its use.
The push started several years ago, when a number of Bald Head Island residents voiced opposition to the usual approach to herd management. The Village of Bald Head Island would put marksmen to a predetermined number of deer to keep population at a reasonable level. (The venison was processed for charity.)
Culling as such was effective and affordable, village and BHIC officials noted; a village survey that went out to the island’s property owners in 2011 found agreement from most respondents that the sharpshoot method was more practical. Still, the non-lethal advocates pushed on.
In February 2012, the village spent less than $12,000 to remove 72 deer and keep the local population below 200, a comfortable level, studies showed. In January 2013, it targeted another 20 female deer–but this time to reach a population level low enough to try the immunocontraception.
Funded by private donations, with no tax dollar involvement, the cost is $50,000 for year one of the multiyear plan (for which fundraising continues). The permit, which the village holds, is valid until January 2019.
Though deer birth control programs have played out elsewhere, like on Fripp Island, S.C., BHIC says success on Bald Head would show leadership in community-environmental diligence and an example other developed, wooded areas could follow.
“Numerous communities across the state wrestle with how best to manage their populations of white-tailed deer,” it wrote on its Facebook page, “and the results of this study will inform current and future deer management projects taking place across the state.”