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Controlled Deer Hunting Sparks Controversey

Lexington Estates conflicted over how to handle deer population.

Great Falls resident Paul Thorman knows that deer can be pests; he has a vegetable garden in his backyard.

"I love and curse the deer too sometimes. I've built high fences around my vegetable garden to keep them out, but I'm not about to start killing Bambi," said Thorman.

Thorman and his wife Mary are both residents of Lexington Estates neighborhood in Great Falls, and both are concerned about the potential introduction of controlled deer hunting in their community.

"Let's focus on stopping the developer's sprawl, which is really causing the deer problem," said Thorman. "We moved to Great Falls to be close to nature. Now we want to kill it?"

It is precisely this catch-22 that has proved problematic for residents of Great Falls.

"There is a long list of problems in an urban — or if you can still call it suburban — area like Northern Virginia," says Earl Hodnett, a wildlife biologist with the Fairfax County Animal Control Unit. "The number-one problem, and the reason it's on the public agenda, is the danger it poses to automobile traffic. We've had several human fatalities and a number of injuries occur each year as a result of deer collisions."

Lexington Estates resident Eldin Leighton is familiar with the dangers of deer run-ins.

"Right here in our neighborhood, our minivan was struck in the side by a deer that came running from a yard alongside the road," said Leighton. "This was not a case of the driver going too fast and being unable to stop. This was a case where the deer suddenly ran from a yard to the right of the roadway and crashed headlong into the right side of the vehicle."

Earl Hodnett noted that in addition to vehicle collisions and problems with the destruction of personal landscaping and property, there has been a growing concern about illnesses such as Lyme disease which are spread by the deer population.

"Deer essentially serve as mass transit for these types of disease," he said.

Eldin Leighton has opted for controlled bow hunting on his property as a means for managing deer overpopulation problems.

"Ignoring the deer does not seem to be an option, and cars are their only predator," said Leighton. "The hunters I have approved for hunting on my property are committed to working safely and discreetly. It is very likely that hunting could go on for many months without being detected by neighbors that have not been told in advance."

LEIGHTON IS INTERESTED in developing a neighborhood-wide strategy for hunting deer in Lexington Estates. However, this concept is not supported by all of his neighbors.

Lexington Estates resident Jeff Rainey is appalled by the idea of any sort of hunting taking place on the common grounds of the Lexington Estates development.

"My point is to them that I don't want to see, nor do I want my children or other people's children to see a wounded or bleeding deer," said Rainey. "We have a tremendous amount of children in our neighborhood."

Matt Knox, deer program supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says that the effective range of archery means that "the chances of an archer shooting someone because they thought it was a deer are pretty much next to impossible."

Earl Hodnett agrees that residents should not be concerned about human injuries as a result of bow hunting.

"It is a perceived threat," said Hodnett. "There has not been one single incident where there's been either a fatality or even an injury to a nonparticipant — not just in Fairfax County but in Virginia."

He noted that people generally make much more noise than deer and that when there are children around there are not likely to be deer in the area.

"The reality is that statistically, you are much more at risk of being struck by lightning or having a run-in with a drunk driver," said Hodnett.

However, he did agree that the chances of spotting a wounded or dead deer definitely exist.

"But everybody has to realize the potential of that happening in Fairfax County because it also happens with the number of deer hit by automobiles," he said.

DESPITE THESE FACTS, there are many who feel that hunting is an unnecessarily brutal tactic for eliminating deer, particularly when there are other means of population control.

"I have lived next to the park and the school grounds for over 14 years, and with the combination of a dog and six-foot fencing that surrounds the property, we have had limited if any, damage to our plantings," said Jeff Rainey. "The fencing was here when we bought our home and it works very well."

According to Matt Knox, birth control is also a method that is frequently brought up as an alternative to hunting.

"It's a viable option, but not so much for the free-ranging deer population," he said.

Earl Hodnett says that Fairfax County's Integrated Deer Management Plan utilizes a number of approaches to deer control.

"It ranges the gamut from educating the public on what they can do on their own property as far as landscaping ... to managed shotgun hunts," said Hodnett.

He pointed out that controlled hunts are also an excellent means for providing food for the poor.

"We have a lottery and select qualified hunters to participate, and in those hunts they are allowed to keep two of the deer that they take. Additional deer are donated to Hunters for the Hungry," said Hodnett.

He added that if the selected park area is too small to accommodate a managed shotgun hunt, snipers from a Fairfax County police tactical team will come in for sharpshooting. Any deer killed using this method are given to the needy.

Matt Knox says that while there are other methods for controlling the deer population, hunting is "the most efficient and most effective at this point in time."

For Eldin Leighton, controlled hunting is a more humane method of animal control than letting nature take its course.

"That, in my opinion, will be a very cruel course of action that will eventually lead to starvation for many deer during the hard winters," he said.