About two weeks ago, an 8-year-old girl was killed, and her father and three siblings injured, when a deer crashed through the windshield of their car as they drove along Highway 100 near Percy Warner Park.
While the shock of such a tragedy resonates throughout the city, even more unnerving is the notion that it could happen again — and soon.
There are concerns from wildlife agencies and area sportsmen that such accidents will be repeated as Nashville’s suburban deer population continues to increase, stirring debate about whether hunters should be allowed to “remove” some of the animals from protected areas.
That puts animal rights organizations on alert. They believe deer population numbers can be controlled without killing.
The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is opposed to hunting for any reason, and it suggests deer herds can be controlled through non-lethal means. The Humane Society opposes “sport” hunting on the grounds that it is “unnecessarily cruel” and “is not an effective means of deer population control.”
But many wildlife biologists and deer experts disagree. They say “harvesting” (read: killing) some of the animals is the only practical way to decrease the population.
“Suburban deer have only one enemy — the automobile,” said Mike Ridings, president of the Davidson County Sportsman’s Club. “The rural deer population is kept in check through hunting. The suburban deer population could be controlled the same way — through safe, ethical hunting.”
PETA claims deer can be controlled through an initiative it calls TNR: trap, neuter and return. It advocates curtailing reproduction through sterilization of does.
Ed Warr, assistant chief of wildlife for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said that wouldn’t work.
“It’s not economically feasible to trap and/or sterilize deer,” he said. “You can’t sterilize all of the does in any given area, and they are so prolific that they’ll quickly re-populate.
“If you remove some to another area, they will simply return, or new deer will take their place,” he added. “Whatever attracted deer to the area in the first place will continue to attract deer.”
Options vs. numbers
Other concepts have been considered and some implemented, but they have had mixed results at best, according to the TWRA.
Roadside fences don’t work; a deer can easily jump an 8-foot fence. Headlight reflectors and car whistles have proven nearly useless, according to the agency.
“It’s not always the car that hits the deer,” Ridings said. “About 70 percent of the time it’s the other way around — the deer crashes into the car.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Safety’s most current statistics, in 2008 there were 5,140 deer-related crashes in Tennessee, including 266 that involved injuries and one fatality. That represents a 12 percent increase over the previous four years.
Nationally, the figures are even more profound. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported approximately 150 deaths a year from deer-car collisions and $1 billion in vehicle damage.
But Humane Society spokeswoman Laura Simon said a 2009 Virginia study indicates that deer density is not a factor in deer-car collisions, and that hunting does not reduce the number of such accidents.
Ridings called the study “nonsense.”
“Common sense dictates that the more deer there are in a given area, the more deer will be crossing the roads,” he said. “And the most effective way to reduce those numbers is through hunting.”
Simon, director of the Humane Society’s Urban Wildlife Program, also blames hunters for increased deer activity in the fall, when accidents are most frequent — an assertion wildlife experts dispute.
Normally, experts say, deer become more active in the fall because of the “rut,” or mating season, when bucks begin chasing does.
Blaming the suburbs
The bottom line, on which nearly everyone agrees, is this: Suburbs continue to expand into rural areas, which means there are more suburban motorists and more suburban deer.
“The suburbs are ideal whitetail deer habitat,” TWRA’s Warr said. “They’ll take a nice suburb with lots of grass and shrubbery over a dense woods anytime. Many suburbs are adjacent to city parks and other natural areas that provide cover.”
Still, suggestions about how to solve the suburban deer problem — or even agreeing that there is a problem — continue to stir heated debate.
Many suburban landowners don’t allow hunting. Even when hunting is permitted on private property, hunters often encounter hostility from other anti-hunting residents.
PETA has publicly encouraged the disruption of legal hunts, although courts have ruled such interference is illegal. The group believes that if man would permit the return of natural predators, they would keep the deer population in balance. But, PETA says — and many likely would agree — most suburbanites are alarmed when they spot a coyote in their neighborhood, so they probably wouldn’t welcome a re-introduction of wolves, bears and cougars within city limits.
Some suburbanites not philosophically opposed to hunting nevertheless have reservations about its safety around populated areas. Ridings said those concerns are unfounded.
“Last year, I had permission to hunt on some private property near a residential area in west Nashville,” he said. “I used a bow to kill six deer, and none of the neighbors were even aware I was there.”
Regardless, the Humane Society is opposed to bow hunting, claiming a large percentage of animals are wounded by inept archers and run off to die a lingering, painful death.
Ridings would like to see more suburban landowners allow hunting on their property, and for Metro government to allow limited hunting in city-owned areas for a few days each fall. Hunting in Percy Warner Park and Radnor Lake is prohibited, for example.
“Permits could be issued on a lottery basis like last fall’s elk hunt in East Tennessee,” he said. “There are some trophy bucks in the suburbs, and I know a lot of hunters who wouldn’t hesitate to pay $500 for a permit.”
He suggested a plan that includes TWRA oversight of the hunts, with the proceeds going to Metro parks or a charity. He added that the venison could be donated to the Second Harvest Food Bank.
But there may be an insurmountable problem: Although the state passed legislation last year allowing guns in public parks, it gave cities a chance opt out of the law, and the Metro Council voted to do just that. Hunting would be restricted without legal rights to carry guns in public parks.
Warr said suburban hunting “won’t end all deer-car collisions. We have hunting in rural areas, and we still have some deer accidents there. But obviously if you reduce the number of deer in a specific area, you’ll have fewer deer on the roads.”