Friday, August 31, 2007

MAINE NEWS: Combatting Deer Overpopulation in Maine Wildlife Park

Oh, deer!

The four whitetail bucks at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray may get vasectomies to keep the population in check, and not everyone is happy about it.

Friends of Maine Wildlife Park, a group of park volunteers, say sterilizing the bucks would permanently prevent the park's does from having fawns, meaning the public would not be able to watch does care for their young.

But Lisa Kane, who supervises the wildlife park for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said allowing overcrowding in the deer pen does not teach the public about responsible game management.

The park, which treats injured wildlife for eventual release, currently has 20 deer in a three-acre enclosure at the park. Animals that can't be released are kept to educate the public about wildlife.

"The mission of the park is to house unreleasable wildlife for the public to learn from and enjoy," Kane said. "The mission of the park is not to breed animals in captivity, particularly whitetail deer."

Joe Jones, president of the park friends group, agrees that 20 deer is excessive, but he worries about the impact of the change on the public.

"I am upset because people love to see the babies. That is the biggest reason they come to the park, to see the babies," Jones said. "If they had done the proper thing, reduced the herd early last spring, they wouldn't have any problems."

Kane said there will always be fawns at the park, because orphaned fawns end up there virtually every spring.

In the past, the park has tranquilized and moved year-old deer to the wild, but park officials say this is not the most humane approach to thinning the herd. Park Superintendent Curtis Johnson said the method is expensive, time-consuming and does not guarantee the survival of the released deer.

"Darting animals is not a precise science. It never produces the same result," Johnson said. "I think it is better to go with a one- time technique."

A vasectomy does not affect a buck's ability to go through typical mating behavior, a fall ritual that the public does not view because the park is closed.

Vasectomies are a common practice for controlling deer numbers at many zoos, said wildlife department veterinarian Russell Danner.

"It's one possibility. The Milwaukee County Zoo had used vasectomies for 10 years, and it worked quite successfully," Danner said.

If newborn fawns are needed to fill out the herd in the future, the sterilizations would not be a problem because a doe can produce two fawns, and a doe several months old is capable of breeding, he said.

The department is also considering a vaccine for does that would prevent their eggs from fertilizing. Danner said that vaccination would be needed once a year.

Although Kane said the cost of vasectomies was not prohibitive, Johnson and Danner both said it could be.

"There is the cost of the anesthesia, and if a surgeon is going to charge or volunteer their time," Danner said. "I want to find the person most skilled who is willing to do the job. That may or may not be me. My job is as a fish pathologist. Maybe there is someone more qualified."

Danner said the cost could be as low as $200 per animal, but Johnson said vasectomies for the four bucks could cost a few thousand dollars, depending on the fee.

The park's annual budget is about $500,000, and its revenue comes from gate fees and interest accrued from a dedicated fund, Johnson said.

Simply feeding the 20 whitetail deer in the park now costs several thousand dollars a year, because of the cost of grain that is used to supplement the browse that has been depleted by the herd, he said.

The decision on vasectomies has to be made by fall, Kane said.

Danner doesn't want to rush it.

"That wildlife park has been around for 50 years," he said.


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