To the Editor:
The Reston Association has wisely begun to approve bow hunts to curb our deer overpopulation, under strict regulations that this be done safely and professionally. Pam Corbett’s recent letter opposing bow hunts [“Deer Hunting Contradicts Reston’s Values,” Reston Connection, July 16-22, 2014] betrays a lack of knowledge about what can be done practically to mitigate the problem. Her yard may be fenced, limiting damage to landscaping that others of us contend with. But fencing is generally discouraged as unfriendly in Reston.
Our efforts to curb the deer overpopulation are not against love of wildlife and green surroundings. Quite the contrary. Deer overpopulation destroys the forest understory and thereby cuts down on habitat for other wildlife, chewing up many natural shrubs and saplings where birds would nest. Destruction of the understory also increases drainage and soil erosion, which reduces the ability of the trees to regenerate and increases the ease with which invasive plants spread. The deer are out of balance and much other wildlife, especially bird life, is actually constrained. If you love green areas, you can’t be happy about their erosion from deer cropping of the forest understory.
Deer have overpopulated in our immediate region largely because suburban development has driven out the predators that would naturally keep deer numbers in balance and has also limited the acreage of forest and rural areas in which the deer could forage without intruding on homeowner properties. As part of the background of the problem, Fairfax County prohibitions on use of firearms to hunt at all – which makes absolute sense where suburban housing is concentrated – mean that the only natural threats to our deer are from being hit by cars or trucks on the roads, or from disease and starvation. The natural consequence is that our white-tailed deer multiply, limited only by the fact that the weakest among them starve in the winter when their forage shrinks.
I have lived in Reston since 1979, in houses adjoining the wooded areas of the Glade, and without fencing. Seeing a deer or two back then was quite rare, and hardly ever very close to an occupied house. Now several deer herds that number from seven or eight up to a dozen and a half at a time come through my property, fearlessly, and right up to the house. If one of us goes out and claps, they just stare at us. Our neighbor has a barking dog. This does not deter them in our yard. Back a decade or two ago, they dug up and ate the Tulip bulbs of those brave enough to plant them in flower beds. Now they have acquired a taste for and chew through Azaleas and Rhododendrons, and even English Ivy, Arbor Vitae, and Juniper – which they formerly did not bother.
A more recent problem is one of public health. Deer are among the hosts of the ticks that spread Lyme disease, a parasite that did not exist in this region historically. Lyme disease was unheard of when I moved to Reston and my kids were in school. It is increasingly recognized as a serious public health threat today. If you have kids playing in the yard, you don’t want them to encounter deer ticks. So, love the deer if you will, but let’s admire them out in the country or on the Blue Ridge Drive, and keep their numbers down in the surroundings where we live.
Pam Corbett talks about sterilizing the does. If that could be done very cheaply and systematically, it could make a big difference. If homeowners could all leave a bowl out in the back yard with a tasty sterilizer compound that the deer would lick up, we might have a solution. Of course, domestic dogs, cats and other licking wildlife might be sterilized too – and could that be true also of an unwitting child? But the fact is it takes bow hunters or some other method of shooting deer with tranquilizer darts, and paid workers to do the sterilization under controlled conditions. The cost where this has been done as an experiment is roughly $1,000 per deer. How affordable is that, if done on a large and systematic scale?
Bow hunts in selected localities are a way of mitigating the problem, cheaper, more direct, and far more cost-effective than a program of sterilization. Bow hunts are only going to make a significant difference to the region if they are adopted widely. But it is a place to start. It is a way of focusing more attention on a serious problem of environmental degradation and also of public health. That Reston Association will be doing a more comprehensive investigation is welcome.
But let those who have patiently worked through the formidable RA regulations on bow hunts proceed on their own properties without bickering. We are after all, are we not, a developed country?