Buck Shot

As deer fill up backyards and roadsides, Northeast Ohio once again wrestles with a dilemma: to shoot or not to shoot.

We never saw what hit us, even in broad daylight.

Something slammed into our left front fender. "What was that?!" my husband and I both yelled. He jammed on the brakes.

Then we saw the deer. It stumbled to its feet and staggered off busy state Route 91 into someone's front yard, heading toward an open field.

Some part of us limped away with that beautiful animal on that day four years ago. We felt diminished.

This afternoon, driving in Hudson with my teenaged daughter, I saw a doe lying twisted on the shoulder of Stow Road, a turkey buzzard plucking at its carcass.

We shuddered. As often as we witness this kind of scene, we cannot get used to it. Nor should we.

Eight deer are struck by vehicles in an average month in Hudson. Those are just reported collisions. Last year alone, Hudson police officers were summoned to end the misery of 31 injured deer with a bullet to the brain.

Living on 3 acres bordered by woods, I welcome and expect to accommodate some wildlife. If I once stood in awe at the sight of deer, these days I scold a small herd of whitetails away from my deck, waving a dish towel like Granny shooing varmints from the Beverly Hillbillies' cee-ment pond.

The deer lounge in the yard like shift workers on coffee breaks. They gaze with insouciance from their raid on the bird feeders or look up, mid-chew, from the few pitiful perennials that remain.

Clearly, Hudson has too many deer. So last year, town officials reintroduced a discussion about deer management strategies. They included the possibilities of allowing controlled bowhunting or hiring sharpshooters to thin herds.

Lethal weapons in the woods my husband and daughter roam with the dog? No way, I thought. There has to be a better solution.

Towns throughout Northeast Ohio are confronting the same issues. Summit County saw 575 reported deer-vehicle crashes in 2009, which ranked it third among Ohio's 88 counties. Cuyahoga County placed 15th at 419 crashes.

The first question of deer control is, shoot or don't shoot?

Solon employed professional sharpshooters for four years to thin its herds. It was costly at $345 to $570 per deer, but it dramatically reduced deer-vehicle accidents in the city from 165 in 2004 to 64 in 2010.

Results aside, Solon council members may feel as if they've pinned targets to their chests. An initiative headed for the town's ballot this November, organized by a vocal national activist group, calls for a total repeal of Solon's culling ordinance.

Nearby, Bentleyville and Hunting Valley have achieved significant drops in deer-vehicle collisions and landscape damage with controlled bowhunting programs. They've extended limited permits to qualified hunters with very little cost to city budgets, no safety incidents and few resident complaints.

Hunters aren't released willy-nilly into the woods. The best of these programs require hunters to shoot on privately owned properties of 5 or more acres from elevated tree stands and release their arrows toward the ground. They undergo background checks and an archery proficiency test. Police can refuse anyone a permit at their discretion. Permits must accompany written permission from property owners. Neighbors are informed of hunting days well in advance.

Many of the deer are processed and donated to area food banks. This past spring, thanks to a hunter's donation, I helped serve a tasty venison sausage stew to more than 200 people at an Akron soup kitchen. It was a welcome protein boost for folks who often rely on the cheap but empty calories of starchy foods.

No one seems to love the idea of lethal deer culling inside town limits. A hunter assured me there are plenty of better hunting environments. Towns have turned to sharpshooting and bowhunting as a last resort when nonlethal methods failed to reduce deer-vehicle collisions for the long term. Lower speed limits, more signage, deer-resistant plants, repellents and bans on feeding deer seem to merely dent the problem.

Fencing long stretches of city-owned property is impractical, costly and simply moves herds around. Feeding the animals in so-called contained "deer parks" actually increases their numbers.

Opponents to lethal culling insist that a product called Streiter-Lites, which reflect headlight beams into deer's eyes, are proven deterrents. Yet many communities have tried and abandoned them as ineffective over time.

Cleveland Metroparks rangers began shooting deer to cull herds in 1999.

"We can't let the deer literally eat the other animals out of house and home," says Jane Christyson, the Metroparks' director of marketing. "Humans made the problem. Humans have to fix the problem."

The Metroparks spent nearly half a million dollars over five years experimenting with a contraceptive vaccine but concluded it was not effective enough and it was difficult to deliver to free-ranging herds in large numbers.

Nonsense, says Lane Ferrante, Ohio state director of the League of Humane Voters. Her organization is largely responsible for this November's "Solon Deer Preservation Act" — the ballot initiative against lethal deer culling in Solon — and an initiative that repealed Broadview Heights' culling ordinance last year. She thinks Ohio should pursue deer birth-control methods and calls Cleveland Metroparks' concern about over-browsed vegetation threatening other wildlife habitats "a bunch of propaganda."

Ferrante doesn't believe there's an overpopulation problem. At the same time, she insists that deer culling results in a "rebound effect" that actually increases herd sizes. Statistics from Cleveland Metroparks and local towns using culling methods do not bear that out.

Ferrante is passionate. But her rhetoric, and that of her organization, is so strident, it seems designed to block all avenues of reasonable dialogue.

"Urban hunting is about backroom deals between hunters and the Department of Wildlife aided by legislators," says Ferrante.

A guest blog post on the league's website goes further: "It's not such a long way from culling deer to invading countries."

Huh? Forget puzzling through that gigantic leap of logic. Once someone hurls a bomb like that, it's all over but the shouting. Yet sometimes shouting gets results. Ferrante's group was Broadview Heights Mayor Samuel Alai's worst nightmare.

"They ran a great campaign; I'll hand it to them," Alai says. "They scared the daylights out of everybody. ... They made people think children would get shot and lots of bad things would happen in Broadview Heights."

Alai believes lethal culling is the only way to stem the burgeoning deer population, especially in communities close to national park land. "But the voters spoke, so we are in a quandary," he says. He fears uncontrolled deer herds will breed disease and escalate property and vehicle damage.

Hudson officials have ruled out sharpshooting because of the high cost. They're leaning toward adopting a bowhunting program. I'd support that measure with a clear conscience.

Abundant evidence suggests that with rigorous safety measures and careful oversight, thinning herds with bowhunting is effective, economical, ecologically prudent — and ultimately humane.

Any responsible hunter will tell you it's no small thing to take a creature's life. Far better to harvest deer to feed the hungry than to allow them to suffer slow, miserable deaths on our roads.

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