Fairfax County, Va., recently began working with two organized bowhunting groups to manage a far too-high population of deer in a couple of the county’s parks.
The move is a representative example of what happens in many states when suburban whitetail populations exceed their carrying capacity.
What happens is that people lose touch with reality.
In some cases, like Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral, maybe they had already lost touch. Commenting on Fairfax County’s cooperation with bowhunters, Feral said, “Bowhunting is a repulsive, violent assault on animals who should be left alone. A deeper question is whether we should be in control of the deer population at all.”
Kimberly Sisco, a board member with a local Wildlife Rescue League, told the Fairfax Times, “The fact is, once the arrow leaves the bow, there is no way to predict what will happen next. The bottom line is that there is no safe place for bowhunting in a suburban area.”
Since neither of these people mentioned anything resembling a fact, let’s look at some.
A healthy deer density in Fairfax County is considered to be about 20-30 deer per square mile. That can vary, of course, depending on site-specific conditions. In Colvin Run Stream Valley, site of one of the county’s managed bowhunts, there are 60-100 deer per square mile. A place called Riverbend Park has 213 deer per square mile, and Bull Run Regional Park has 419 deer per square mile. The figures are from the 2009 Annual Report on the Environment, Fairfax, County, VA, which also stated: “It is apparent that Fairfax County has a serious overabundance of deer.”
Deer compete for food and space. When an overabundance of deer intensifies that competition, deer eat up everything in sight, causing ecological damage to forests and eventually facing malnutrition, disease and/or starvation. And if even one deer gets a disease it can spread much faster in areas of high deer density.
Moreover, an overabundance of deer can increase the potential for Lyme disease and result in massive loss of residential shrubbery and vegetable gardens. Finally, the number of deer-automobile collisions inevitably rises. Fairfax County alone averages between 4,000 and 5,000 such collisions a year. About 150 people a year die from such accidents nationwide, and repair costs average $3,050.
So, in answer to Feral’s question—to put it mildly—yes, we do need to be in control of the deer population. The fact that she fails or refuses to see this proves what a “friend of animals” she and her group really are.
As for the inevitable safety issues raised over suburban hunts, Fairfax is again a good example. Eric Huppert is president of Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia, (SWMNV) the group handling the hunt at Colvin Run. (Belvoir Bow Hunters is conducting the other county hunt, at Laurel Run.)
“We’ve worked with Fairfax County since1998, and no one has ever shot anything other than a deer,” Huppert said.
SWMNV hunters fully recognize that hunting in Fairfax County parkland is not like hunting in a national forest, and there are a number of rules they follow to ensure safety. Anyone who wants to join the club must prove completion of the International Bowhunting Education Course, and pass a marksmanship test where you shoot broadheads at a six-inch circle from 20 and 30 yards. All hunters use tree stands placed at least 15 feet high; there is no ground hunting. And no shots are to be taken beyond 20 yards. Not only does the range restriction help ensure safety, it shows some sensitivity to the neighbors, too. “We don’t want to have to trail a deer through the community,” Huppert said. SWMNV hunters use compound bows and crossbows only. They also carry one million dollars of insurance, which is required by Fairfax County.
None of the people who oppose Fairfax County’s hunts has cited even one actual accident or incident of property damage caused by a bowhunter.
Huppert and his group also go above and beyond in trying to be good citizens. While hunter harassment is not as common as it used to be, thanks to laws NRA helped pass, SWMNV hunters have had to deal with it. One hunter had his tires slashed. Another was surprised to hear a resident setting off firecrackers to scare away deer. And there has been verbal abuse, too.
“We don’t even engage these people,” Huppert said. The tire slashing was reported to police, and the verbal abuse is not allowed to escalate into anything dramatic.
The bowhunting groups work for free, actually generating revenue for the state through the license fees they pay. The “sharpshooters” that local governments sometimes bring in to cope with too many deer are usually paid.
“We don’t charge. We never will,” Huppert said. The group also routinely donates between 60 and 70 percent of the deer they shoot to Hunters for the Hungry programs.
Mild winters, high reproduction rates, a lack of predators, local laws against discharging a firearm and anti-hunting sentiment all contribute to the suburban deer problem in Fairfax and many other cities and towns throughout the country. And whether it’s bows or firearms where legal, a controlled, regulated hunting season continues to be the single most effective answer to it. Even beyond what’s happening in Fairfax County, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries instituted an urban archery season in 2002. Made available to every incorporated city and town in the state, and to Fairfax and York counties, the generous split season ran from Sept. 5 to Oct. 2, 2009, and will go from Jan. 4 to March 27, 2010.
While that’s a lot of days to hunt, we are facing a lot of opposition to hunting. Every time an issue like this makes the papers—and this one has made the Washington Post, the Fairfax Times and the Reston Connection that I know of—hunters should be burying editors with letters and online comments filled with facts that support suburban hunting.
Fairfax held a couple of public meetings to address the hunts, and some of the animal rights’ advocates who showed up don’t even reside in the state, according to Huppert. Misguided as these people are, they are passionate.
It would be a mistake to let them be more passionate, or more active, than we are.
Editor's Note: SWMNV has 90-100 members but, “We are always looking for action-oriented people,” said President Eric Huppert. “While everyone wants to hunt, people willing to work the phones, pitch in with the administrative work, etc. are needed, too.” Visit http://www.deerdamage.org for information on joining.