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Deer, the Bane Of Suburban Lawns

Towns use guns, arrows to cull herds

HAVING put the hassles of city life behind them, American suburbanites are taking aim at a very un-urban source of exasperation: deer.

As suburban sprawl reaches farther into wooded areas, more of the nation's 14 million deer are coming into contact with civilization - darting in front of headlights, drinking from swimming pools, snacking on expensive shrubbery, even scaring children.

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The result: Some communities are losing patience. They are hiring sharpshooters and taking other steps to thin out populations of the itinerant intruders - to the vehement protests of animal-rights groups.

Commissioners in the well-to-do Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion Township recently approved a measure to hire professional hunters to bait and kill hundreds of deer there.

Likewise, game officials in Ohio have established five ``urban deer zones'' near major cities where hunters with permits will be allowed to shoot deer during that state's six-day hunting season.

According to Lloyd Culbertson of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the deer population has been growing by 5 to 10 percent there for the last few years, and now numbers about 425,000. Since 1989, the number of deer hit by Ohio motorists rose to more than 24,000 a year, up 66 percent.

``Deer are moving into more heavily populated areas,'' Mr. Culbertson says, ``because as the countryside is developed, hunting grounds are disappearing.''

Yet according to Heidi Prescott, director of the Fund for Animals, the high number of deer is less a function of restricted hunting than of state wildlife policies that, until recently, aimed to increase herd levels to bolster hunting. Missouri has imported deer, she notes, and Michigan has instituted a policy that has increased its herd from 1.2 million to 2 million.

``As their numbers grow, deer are reclaiming former rangeland,'' says D.J. Schubert, the fund's wildlife biologist. ``But what used to be a stream valley now has houses, malls, and roads. It leads to a lot more encounters between humans and deer.''

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While humans don't seem to bother the deer, Mr. Schubert says, the reverse is not always true. ``Some people see a deer and say `great,' '' he says. ``Other people see a deer and they don't know how to react. They worry about their children, about disease, and about their well-tended gardens.''

Schubert says this trepidation toward wildlife illustrates the difference between a community's biological capacity to sustain deer and what he calls its ``cultural capacity.''

``Right now these deer have plenty of food, they're not starving,'' he says. ``The problem is that people are not comfortable with them and want them to go away.''

The most common civic solution to a deer problem in the US is controlled hunting. Since guns are not an option in most residential neighborhoods, planners have adopted new strategies, including archery. A state-run bow and arrow hunt in the Pittsburgh suburb of Fox Chapel last year netted 128 deer.

Yet in Pennsylvania and in other communities, there is often strong opposition to shooting the animals. According to Schubert, one alternative method is to shoot the deer with darts that deliver a contraceptive that renders them infertile.

But the best alternative to hunting, Ms. Prescott says, is to educate people about deer. If suburbanites learn how to drive defensively, protect their gardens, and stop growing plants that attract deer, she says, there won't be a problem.

``Eating plants isn't a crime that should call for corporal punishment,'' she says. ``Why should a deer lose its life because it chose to eat a marigold?''

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