Three property owners on Reston’s Buckthorn Lane were denied permission to hunt deer on their properties. The Reston Association Board of Directors, in its monthly meeting last week, discussed the applications and heard from residents, experts and staff in what turned into a nearly three-hour long debate.
The applicants who live on three properties on Buckthorn Lane claimed that the area’s rising deer population, among other problems, causes health and safety hazards while driving property values down. On the other hand, residents opposing the permits also claimed safety hazards and depreciating property values as reasons to not grant the permits.
“These are large, undomesticated animals right by my house,” said Janet Carlton, who is a neighbor of the applicants — whose applications specified that professional hunters would perform the hunting using bows and arrows — and spoke on their behalf. She added that since she moved to the area in 1990, the number of deer has increased dramatically. “Deer are no longer afraid of the people,” she said. Carlton said she once spent $9,000 replacing bushes on her property because of the damage the deer had done. Next spring she had to replace those same bushes.
“The problem is, deer have adapted to people,” said Earl Hodnett, a Fairfax County wildlife biologist. He said without a natural predator and with flower gardens in the area, the deer have a perfect habitat. “It’s Disney World. It can’t get any better for deer,” said Hodnett, who said there was easily more than 50,000 deer in Fairfax County.
Hodnett highlighted the problems caused by deer in the county. He said the two obvious hazards are that annually four to five thousand deer hit by vehicles, causing a transportation and safety issue, and the animal is known to spread Lyme disease to humans.
DEER POSE less obvious dangers, too. “We stand a good chance of losing our oak forest,” said Hodnett. He added that many animal species depend on acorns that grow on oak trees. There is also an increase on home invasions on part of the animal. Hodnett said that both the Commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County have recognized the issues of deer overpopulation. He said deer herds needed to be reduced to 15 to 20 deer per square mile, adding there is no area in the county where the deer population is below 35 deer per square mile. “Some of our parks have been devastated environmentally, and they won’t come back in our lifetime,” said Hodnett.
The RA staff recommended that the hunting applications be approved, with a number of limits on when and how deer could be hunted. “An increase of deer population leads to a decrease of diverse wildlife,” said RA’s environmental resource manager Claudia Thompson Deahl.
The RA Board of Directors, however, denied the hunting permits on all three properties, largely because of safety concerns. “I am not disputing the evidence, but I’m not persuaded that granting permission [to hunt on the properties] would alleviate this problem,” said board president Jenn Blackwell. She added that the RA could be held liable if any sort of accident was to occur during the hunting.
Director Kathleen Driscoll McKee disagreed, stating that the health risks caused by deer overpopulation are too high. She conceded that granting permission on one or all three of the properties would not solve the problem, but said it would be the first step towards the solution. “The choice is health and safety,” said McKee.
ONE OF THE MAIN concerns brought to the board’s attention is the risk of deer spreading disease to humans, especially the Lyme disease. The board heard from two Reston residents who suffered from Lyme disease and supported granting the hunting permit. Dr. Beverly Bugos said she lost hearing in her left ear because of the disease. She said her career was ruined and that because of it she is in danger of losing her house in Reston. “We need to cut down on the vector that’s spreading this terrible disease,” said Bugos.
Patricia DeFrancesco, a 20-year Reston resident, said she was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, after suffering debilitating symptoms for at least five years. She was also forced to retire prematurely. “Two of my neighbors have also been diagnosed with Lyme disease,” said DeFrancesco, adding that three of the seven households on her street were thus diagnosed.
According to Hodnett, having so many deer in a small area could also cause other diseases. He said that areas of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania — all close to Northern Virginia — have all had cases of Chronic Wasting Disease, which Hodnett compared to the Mad Cow Disease. He also said that areas of Loudoun County have had cases of an undiagnosed disease, which is also seen in cattle and sheep, and is feared transmittable to humans. He added that if humans did not reduce the deer population, eventually Mother Nature will.
“This isn’t something we have to act on, we can just wait it out,” said Hodnett, warning that the cost of inaction would be great. “Automobile collisions, degraded habitat, the quality of life will be so diminished,” he said.
SOME RESIDENTS who spoke at the meeting, however, asked the board to deny the permits. Their concerns included safety for people, especially children, who may use the trails near the properties in question. John Helgerson, a nearby resident of 28 years, said his primary concern was that the properties in question were residential properties. “I am very much opposed to any decision that would promote killing of deer in our backyard,” he said. He added that arrows rarely kill deer at the spot where they are hit, but rather that the deer run some distance before dying. In this case, he said, non-hunting properties were too close, and those residents could end up with a dead deer in their backyard. “To me this is completely ludicrous. We moved to Reston to enjoy the wildlife, not to kill it,” said Helgerson.
“My main concern is there cannot be any guarantee that this hunt won’t spill into my property,” said resident Julie Green Miller. She asked about the implications the hunting might have on her property if she attempted to sell it. Also, she asked, if she needed to buy some kind of additional insurance because of nearby hunting.
Wendye Echard said it was a misconception that deer are main culprits of spreading Lyme disease. She said recent studies refute that notion.
Another nearby resident, Moshe Fluk, said he likes to take his grandchildren out to see the deer during the day. He is also concerned with the safety of the runners on the nearby trail.
Hodnett said there had been no archery fatalities in Virginia, and that bow hunting was a safe practice, given that the hunters hunt from elevated positions. He said granting the permits would set up a pilot program, which could help start other similar programs in the county and statewide. While Hodnett conceded that the small area in question would not have a drastic impact on the deer population in Reston, he estimated that for every doe killed, 200 deer would be eliminated in the next 10 years because of the high reproduction.
THOSE HOPING the hunting permits would be granted left the meeting disappointed. Hodnett said time would change the minds of those who are against deer hunting in the area. David Dye, a member of Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia — an organization that offers bow hunting as a tool for managing deer herd sizes — said the residents and directors who spoke against the permit had a right to their opinion. However, he said, “Their opinions are based on emotions rather than science.”
The RA Board of Directors voted to deny permits on all three properties, although there was much discussion on the middle of the three subsequent properties, and whether it should be allowed a hunting permit. McKee decided to abstain from voting on that permit. “If the Commonwealth and the county are not successful in managing the deer problem, I doubt the RA will be able to,” said McKee.