Contraceptive vaccine planned for Oak Bay deer

Administration of a contraceptive vaccine is being planned to manage deer in Oak Bay after 20 does were radio-collared last month.

Data from the collared does and 40 motion-sensor infrared cameras set up along trails in Oak Bay will be reviewed before the vaccine can be administered.

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The program is “ground-breaking” and the first time in B.C. and Canada that the immunocontraceptive vaccine, Zonastat-D, would be used in a small, contained urban setting to manage deer, said Steve Huxter, of the non-profit Victoria-based Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society (UWSS).

If a permit from the province is granted, the birth-control drug would be administered to a number of female indigenous Columbian black-tailed deer as early as August, said Huxter, who is the project manager.

Oak Bay has adopted a $40,000 program, jointly funded by the municipality and the province, to control the deer population using immunocontraception.

About 40 deer are found dead in Oak Bay each year, mostly hit by vehicles or entangled or impaled on fences.

“That’s not a humane way to reduce our deer population,” said Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen.

Conflict with humans and small domestic animals is also a concern.

A cull in Oak Bay in 2015 saw 11 deer killed in two weeks. Jensen calls it a “relative success,” but it created a rift in the community and sparked protests by the B.C. SPCA and animal-rights activists.

That led to adoption of the current program, of which the first phase was conducted from Feb. 18 to March 23 by the UWSS’s wildlife veterinarian, a biologist and team of volunteers.

They sedated the 20 does and fitted them with GPS collars weighing less than one pound and with colour-coded tags for future identification. The process, including recovery and release, took a maximum of 30 minutes, according to the society.

Five young bucks were inadvertently captured and then ear tagged, but were not fitted with GPS collars. Forty motion-sensor cameras were installed to photograph the animals as they wander.

This first phase of the program is expected to provide baseline data on the ecology of urban deer, movement patterns, density, and population size.

They don’t have a population count yet, but Oak Bay’s mayor said he knows for certain “there’s too many deer in Oak Bay.”

A decade ago, there were years when just one or two were found dead in the municipality, said Jensen. For the past five to six years, about 40 have been found dead each year. There’s been a “rapid escalation” over the last six years, he said.

“It’s encouraging to see the first phase was completed successfully and now the second phase will hopefully be underway in the next six to 12 months.”

In the second phase, does will be given the drug Zonastat-D. It blocks fertilization by triggering production of antibodies that bind to the protein envelope surrounding the egg.

It’s “very very safe,” said Huxter.

The does will either be captured and the drug injected by hand or the deer will be shot with a contraceptive dart that will administer the drug and mark the spot for identification. “It’s a lot faster, more efficient and cost effective to use a darting rifle,” said Huxter.

An issue with the drug is that it’s only effective for 12 to 22 months, said Huxter.

UWSS includes scientists, wildlife veterinarians, biologists, graduate students, animal behaviourists and community volunteers. It is working with a laboratory in the hopes of developing a vaccine that is effective for five to seven years, he said.

The vaccine would not be harmful to a human or predator if the deer were consumed, said Huxter.

If successful, UWSS hopes the program will serve as an effective, community-supported template for urban deer management around North America.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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