Editorial: Sterilizing deer is worth trying

Not everyone is happy with Oak Bay’s decision to cull urban deer, but one group of citizens isn’t content with merely complaining — they believe they have a better idea and they intend to do something about it.

The newly formed Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society has launched a campaign to sterilize deer, rather than killing them. The group’s members are raising funds so that 25 does can be captured and injected with SpayVac, a contraceptive vaccine.

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The society, which has a website (deerplanoakbay.ca), has already raised more than $8,600 toward the goal of $50,000 it hopes to achieve in the next three months.

Eleven deer were killed in Oak Bay in February as part of the Capital Regional District’s $250,000 pilot program for deer management. It was a controversial move — many people were understandably uncomfortable with executing the deer.

The new group wants to try an alternative to culling.

“We, as a group, are concerned that culling of — killing of — deer is highly objectionable,” said society president Bryan Gates. “And yet we accept the fact that conflicts do exist and will exist. Our goal right now is to administer a humane, effective and non-lethal population-control program for deer, initially in Oak Bay and perhaps to expand to other regions.”

The abundance of urban deer in the capital region is a difficult problem. It’s not a case of the deer having been driven from their natural habitat. They are here because we have created a safe habitat free of natural predators, with an abundance of delicious vegetation. We are, in effect, breeding urban deer and the numbers should be controlled.

That’s easier said than done. The killing of 11 Oak Bay deer will not likely make much of a dent in the population. Others will simply move in from adjoining areas.

Sterilizing seems an attractive solution — no deer killed, reproduction is curtailed. SpayVac has proven to be effective in preventing pregnancies for up to six years, and only one shot is necessary.

Now, if all the does will just line up for their shots, the deer population will be brought under control — in 10 years or so. Since that’s an unlikely event, the deer will have to be trapped, a costly venture, up to about $800 for each deer treated. Volunteers can help reduce the costs, but trained biologists are still needed to handle the trapped animals as they are vaccinated, tagged and released.

A 2011 paper written for the provincial government says that for a program to be effective, 90 per cent or more of the does should be vaccinated. If only 20 or 30 per cent are sterilized, that will improve conditions for the rest of the deer, and numbers will not decline.

The vaccine is experimental — it will have to be manufactured to order, after the proper permits are obtained from Health Canada and the province.

Results, even if they are favourable, will not be immediate.

Still, as urban deer are a problem throughout North America and Europe, any new insights gained from the local project could be valuable. It’s important to know what works; it’s equally important to know what doesn’t work.

We have, with our urban lifestyle, created the urban-deer problem. There isn’t a single, simple solution, but with efforts such as that proposed by the Oak Bay group, we could perhaps discover a combination of methods that could help manage the problem.

And it’s better than just complaining.

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