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Irondequoit's Deer Provide a Look at Urban Wildlife Management


SYRACUSE, N.Y. - For three years in a row, the town of Irondequoit has racked up more than 100 deer-car accidents annually, a number the town supervisor calls unacceptable.

At the same time, deer have been nibbling their way through homeowners' gardens and developing into a polarizing force that pitted many of the town's 54,000 residents against each other.

"It has been, over the years, an extremely divisive issue," said town Supervisor David Schantz.

But with the help of a three-pronged deer management program and a team of researchers led by a wildlife ecologist from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Irondequoit is learning to control its deer herd.

Schantz said the town hopes to become a model for other communities struggling with burgeoning wildlife populations that are adapting to city and suburban life.

"We have started a channel for communication and we're trying to focus our energies on working together and trying to minimize the emotional aspect," he said.

Emotions run high when residents devote time and money to landscaping projects, only to have their plants and shrubs destroyed by deer. They worry about their property values. At the same time, the bait-and-shoot aspect of the town's control program has a considerable number of both detractors and supporters.

"Irondequoit has been one of the vanguard communities dealing with urban deer. It was one of the first to recognize and deal with the deer populations," Dr. William F. Porter said. "This community has come a long way in learning how to reach a compromise and how to find a middle ground."

Porter and his team recently completed a study of the town's deer population. The study estimates the current population at 341 deer-about half the 686 deer estimated in the scientists' 1995 survey. For statistical purposes, the researchers report the population currently ranges from 220 to 539 deer.

Irondequoit's approach to managing the deer population involves the bait-and-shoot program, bow hunting, and a contraceptive program that is still being tested by Porter.

The survey centered on a 16-square-mile area bounded by Lake Ontario to the north, Route 104 to the south, the Genesee River to the west, and Irondequoit Bay, on Lake Ontario, to the east. The researchers devised a grid that split the area into blocks of one square kilometer each.

In March, Porter's team made three helicopter flights over the town, counting every deer they saw. They counted the deer in a variety of selected blocks that covered about 80 percent of the town. Using standard statistical procedures, they estimated the town's deer population, based on the number counted in those blocks.

The highest concentrations of deer were found in two areas. One is the area west of Culver Road and north of Titus Avenue, just south of Durand Eastman Park. The other is an area known locally as "The Flats."

Schantz said the study has helped the town deal with its problem.

"It's been extremely helpful in many ways. One way is understanding more about how deer reproduce, what affects the production of fawns," the supervisor said. "It will help us understand how to develop a management program that will work for a community."

"We're in a very, very primitive stage right now," he said. "It's the beginning of what will result in a viable, humane method of wildlife management. Urban wildlife management is kind of a new thing."

The study is part of a broader program of research that includes work with deer by ESF, Cornell University, and state Department of Environmental Conservation scientists both at Irondequoit and the Seneca Army Depot. The work is funded by the state Legislature, which set aside $120,000 for the project.

Assisting Porter in the study were H. Brian Underwood, a research wildlife biologist and adjunct assistant professor at ESF; Dale L. Garner, a research wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; and Brent A. Rudolph, a graduate assistant at ESF.