When a Herd Becomes a Horde

Newtown Bee Editorial

Editorial Inkdrops- August 26 2005

When A Herd Becomes A Horde 

The math is inescapable. Every female deer in Newtown can be expected to have two offspring this year. And that doe and all her female offspring and their offspring year after year can be expected to reproduce at a rate that will double the town's deer population every two or three years. 

Newtown is one of Fairfield County's hardest hit towns, according to researchers who are tracking the explosion in the deer population. Along with Easton, Redding, and Greenwich, Newtown is estimated to have between 60 and 100 deer per square mile. That is a total of 3,600 to 6,000 deer in our 60-square-mile town. If these estimates are accurate, Newtown could have more deer than people in seven or eight years. 

The ramifications of these numbers go beyond our automatic concern about the increasing vulnerability of our garden shrubs and greater peril on the back roads. Preserving our hostas and daylilies and avoiding the deer in our headlights may be the least of our worries. Wildlife biologists are finding that whole ecosystems are disrupted in areas where natural predators have been driven off by development and deer are allowed to multiply exponentially. Native vegetation is being stripped from forests and woodlands and is being replaced by invasive species. Low-lying habitats for birds and other animal species are being wiped out, undermining biodiversity and creating a more barren and monotonous landscape of things deer cannot digest.

Public health experts, however, are most worried about what an unchecked deer population will mean for their continuing battle against Lyme disease. More deer means better breeding conditions for deer ticks, which deliver Lyme disease to humans. A physician and researcher working with the Fairfield County Deer Management Alliance said last week that Fairfield County already has the highest rate of Lyme disease in the nation. 

The alliance wants to enlist Newtown in its efforts to attack the disease by attacking the infecting agent - the deer tick. The best way to do that, according to the group, is to significantly reduce the deer herd in town. It asserts that when there are fewer than eight deer per square mile, the deer tick population virtually disappears. Other towns in the county are trying to reduce their deer herds to between 12 and 20 animals per square mile through aggressive hunting programs, and the deer management alliance wants Newtown to do the same. 

Newtown needs to seriously consider what it is going to do about the explosion in the deer population. The selectmen should ask either an existing agency, like the Newtown Health District or the Conservation Commission, or create an ad hoc panel, to review the science behind some of the claims by the Fairfield County Deer Management Alliance. It should also assess whether a large-scale organized deer hunt in town would be effective, safe, and humane. 

Deer are beautiful animals, but the consequences of a collapsing ecosystem can be ugly. We have already seen how human enterprise can tip the natural balance. We should now be enterprising enough to set it right again.