Abnormally large deer populations in suburbs have become a common problem throughout the United States. Deer proliferate in suburban areas, which are void of natural predators and abundant with lush lawns and tasty landscape shrubs. Certainly there is some migration, but does tend to stay at home. With an annual growth rate of 20%-30% it does not take long for a population to reach very large numbers.
As evidenced in Lakeway in the 1990s, overpopulation can result in serious malnutrition and disease among the deer. It caused damage to landscapes and gardens. Over browsing of the greenbelts and forested areas of the community reduced the habitat of other animal species, such as forest understory birds, and the disappearance of hardwood saplings that will be needed in the future to replace today’s mature trees.
Of greater concern, however, is the danger deer pose to community motorists. National statistics indicate deer are struck by motor vehicles more than a million times a year, causing more than $1 billion in damage. More than 100 people are killed annually in these accidents, making deer more deadly to humans than sharks, alligators, bears, and rattlesnakes combined.
Humans are sometimes required to fill the role of natural predation and remove some deer in order to maintain a healthy and safe environment for both deer and humans. The City of Lakeway and its residents have always considered their deer as an asset to be admired and appreciated. It has never been the intention of the city’s deer management program to eradicate deer from Lakeway. However, reasonable efforts to control a public health and safety issue compelled the city leadership to take action.
The Lakeway Deer Management Committee
By 1997, the deer population in Lakeway had grown to an estimated 2,600 animals, nearly five times what would be considered a reasonable maximum density for the area at that time. In May of that year, in a special non-binding referendum regarding City policy on deer control, 86% of those who voted said the Lakeway deer population needs to be controlled. Unfortunately, there was little consensus as to how that control should be achieved.
In the summer of 1999, the Lakeway City Council commissioned a committee to look into methods of control. The committee’s charter was to research and analyze available data, consult with experts, and recommend methods for stabilizing, then reducing the deer population to an acceptable number. The city and its committee are dedicated to the premise that these control methods be safe, humane, effective, and affordable.
Determination of the “acceptable” number of deer in Lakeway is a subjective matter. The primary criteria are: health and safety of both deer and residents; cost to the public and to individual residents for deer-related damage to public and private property, and to related costs for maintenance. These are tempered by the desire of many Lakeway homeowners to retain a resident deer population for esthetic value. The committee believed the acceptable number to be approximately 500 deer.
In the early years, the committee conducted an annual census of the deer population and collected data in order to create a mathematical model of the City’s deer population. In 2004, the city ceased taking an annual census. There was no known protocol for conducting a scientific census of deer in an urban setting, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department no longer considered one necessary for deer control. This has since been confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture and independent wildlife biologists.
However, the city continues to monitor other data sources such as numbers trapped, gender of deer trapped, calls reported to the police department, vehicle collisions, disposal of deer carcasses, and visual observation in order to track Lakeway’s deer population.
Deer management activities of other communities, both in Texas and across the nation, have been researched and analyzed. Experts have been brought in to conduct seminars to apprise the City and its residents of ways to deal with the problem.
Certainly, it is possible – even desirable – for humans and deer to live in harmony with one another in Lakeway. The key is managing the population so the deer do not eat themselves out of house and home or become an unacceptable safety threat on City roadways. Several possibilities for achieving this have been examined in communities throughout the United States, some of which have been applied in areas much like Lakeway. These remedies include fencing, fertility control, doe sterilization, trap and relocation, trap and euthanize and sharp shooting.
A high, continuous, encircling fence can effectively stem migratory flow into or out of a community. Without gates or cattle guards, however, deer can simply enter or leave on roadways. While fencing theoretically would help to contain this problem, research by the Lakeway Deer Management Committee indicated that local overpopulation is, for all practical purposes, the result of unchecked local reproduction rather than inward migration. The only indication of migration the committee found was that of young bucks leaving the City.
Fertility control in deer seems like a logical and humane solution, but is not one void of problems. Immuno-contraception holds promise for controlled environments, but the challenge of darting the same does with two inoculations three to six weeks apart in a 6,000-acre area such as Lakeway is very small. To be effective, these must be followed by annual boosters during the fall mating season. Immuno-contraception is also expensive – estimated at $500 to $1,600 during the lifetime of a doe.
Surgical Sterilization of Does
Tubal ligation of the doe population is generally considered an effective approach for birth control. It would be a permanent surgical procedure, which can be performed in the field. However, at over $1,000 per animal, it is considerably more expensive than other methods.
The primary concern with sterilization is that Texas Parks and Wildlife does not have a permitting process for sterilization as a means of controlling urban deer populations. In Texas, deer are the property of the state, and any management program must be permitted by the state. Furthermore, sterilization has not been proven effective in an open environment the size of Lakeway.
Trap & Relocate
This option entails capturing the deer and relocating them to another area with a wildlife management plan that has been approved by TPWD. Relocation must be done every year in order to maintain the targeted population. Costs for trapping and relocation are affected by how far the deer must be moved, but can range from $150 - $200 per animal.
Trap & Euthanize
When there are no relocation sites available, trap and euthanize is the other viable option. After capture, deer are transported to an off-site location where they are euthanized. The deer are processed, and the meat is made available to area charities. Cost per animal with this procedure is similar to the trap and relocate option at about $225 per animal.
This option has been successful in certain areas of the country, but is a difficult sell because of a perceived safety issue. When trap and relocate opportunities appeared unavailable in late 2000, Lakeway obtained a depredation permit from TPWD to allow sharpshooting. Public opinion was tested in a nonbinding referendum on the use of lethal means for controlling our deer population. After a heated campaign, the measure passed by 0.7% of the votes cast. This method was never used in Lakeway. The city chose instead to trap and transport, and to trap and euthanize deer.
Measures Taken to Date and Future Outlook for Relocation
From 1999 to 2015, 3,643 deer were removed through trap and relocation or trap and process permits, including 794 relocated to ranches in Mexico in the 2000 –2001 season through an arrangement between TPWD and entities in Mexico.
A receiving ranch must obtain permission from Texas Parks and Wildlife and demonstrate that it has capacity to accommodate transplanted deer. Although Central Texas ranches have requested deer in the past, the current statewide overpopulation of white tailed deer has all but precluded transplanting them.
The deer belong to the State of Texas, and there are rules and regulations that control our deer population. The City of Lakeway is allowed to manage the deer in our community as long as we follow the state’s rules.
While the city considers trapping and relocating to be a viable option when available, it currently traps and process deer as the most practical and effective method of deer population control that most closely approximates nature.
The city’s deer management program has been successful in achieving manageable deer populations for more than 15 years. In addition, it is considered by Texas Parks and Wildlife, and independent wildlife biologists, as one of the most successful urban deer management programs in the state of Texas.