Deer are an attraction on Jekyll Island; study says there may be too many

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In this Oct. 13, 2010 file photo, two deer peer out from the underbrush bordering Pine Lakes golf course on Jekyll Island, Ga., Often spotted chewing leaves by roadsides and at the edge of golf course fairways, deer have become such a common sight on Jekyll Island they're almost something of a tourist attraction. The question is whether Jekyll Island has too many deer, as a state agency's recent survey suggests, and if so how to thin the population at a state park that's beloved for its commitment to conservation. Just the suggestion that Jekyll might allow limited hunting has been met with howls of protest.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Oct. 13, 2010 file photo, two deer peer out from the underbrush bordering Pine Lakes golf course on Jekyll Island, Ga., Often spotted chewing leaves by roadsides and at the edge of golf course fairways, deer have become such a common sight on Jekyll Island they're almost something of a tourist attraction. The question is whether Jekyll Island has too many deer, as a state agency's recent survey suggests, and if so how to thin the population at a state park that's beloved for its commitment to conservation. Just the suggestion that Jekyll might allow limited hunting has been met with howls of protest.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Tourists on Jekyll Island pull over to snap photos of them grazing by the roads, while island residents leave corn for the four-legged whitetails in their yards. As the sun goes down over the Georgia coast, golfers often see does and their fawns watching from the trees along the fairways.

“I went to dinner for Easter at a friend’s house, and I looked out the window and said, ‘You have seven deer in your backyard,’” said Bonnie Newell, a nurse and longtime resident of the island that doubles as a state park. “And he said, ‘Yes, I feed them.’”

Nobody on Jekyll Island disputes that it has an abundance of white-tailed deer. But a recent study by the state Department of Natural Resources has raised a pair of troubling questions: Does the 7-mile island near Brunswick have too many? And if so, should hunters be allowed to thin the herd?

The Jekyll Island Authority, which governs the state-owned island, in early April ordered its new conservation manager to take a closer look after a DNR survey estimated its total deer population at 712 – or 80 per square mile. The agency’s report suggested a sustainable number would be about 30 deer per square mile.

But what’s troubled residents most is the report’s recommendation that Jekyll Island consider allowing bow hunters to deal with the problem, or hire professional sharpshooters if hunting is deemed unsafe.

“We got a ton of feedback from people opposed to the possibility of having even regulated hunting on the island,” said David Egan, a resident and leader of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. “The deer are like one of the amenities on the island. People drive around at night trying to spot them and bring their kids out to look for them.”

Egan said he doubts the accuracy of the DNR survey, though he sees plenty of deer like everybody else. When playing golf in the late afternoons, he said, he’ll often spot between 20 and 40 whitetails in the woods near the edge of the fairways.

Hunting has long been banned on Jekyll Island, once a getaway owned by wealthy American industrialists before the state of Georgia bought it in 1947. As a state park, the island is beloved for its commitment to conservation. State law dictates that 65 percent of its land remain undeveloped. The island has a hospital for sick and injured sea turtles and a program using radio-transmitting tags to study rattlesnakes rather than kill them.

Deer can be a problem if their numbers swell beyond their habitat’s ability to support them. They can wipe out plants they depend on for food, and grow thin and sickly from not getting enough to eat. In populated areas, they can be a traffic hazard to drivers.

Hunters and sharpshooters are a common means of culling deer populations. Last year, both were dispatched in southeast Minnesota to hunt 900 deer after state officials feared an outbreak of a fatal brain disease. The city of Jackson, Mich., brought in sharp shooters in January to kill 80 deer at a city park and golf course after residents complained the animals were damaging property and causing car wrecks.

Ben Carswell, who became Jekyll Island’s conservation manager in March, said more detailed studies need to be done before anybody can say for sure that the island has too many deer.

He plans to try to replicate the DNR’s survey, which estimated the population by counting deer using a spotlight while driving at slow speeds during three nights last fall, while doing additional studies to determine if the island’s deer are unhealthy and if plants they use for food are being consumed at unsustainable rates.

“It’s not like all of a sudden we have too many deer out here. The population has probably built slowly over time,” Carswell said. “We want to make sure we do a thorough job and take our time rather than make a gut decision.”

If he finds Jekyll Island does have too many deer, there aren’t many non-lethal options for reducing the population.

Georgia law prohibits trapping deer and transporting them elsewhere. There is a drug that works as deer birth control that’s been approved by state agencies for use in New Jersey and Maryland, but it has to be given to female deer as an injection – making it a costly option that’s difficult to administer to large populations.

Will Ricks, the DNR wildlife biologist who conducted the Jekyll Island survey, said he suggested bow hunting because “it’s quieter, safer, less invasive, just better for situations where there are a lot of people around” compared to hunting with rifles.

The U.S. Department Agriculture also offers state wildlife agencies literal guns for hire – trained sharpshooters capable of thinning overabundant deer herds within a few days.

“I presented those potential options. At the end of the day that’s not for me to decide,” Ricks said. “I certainly wasn’t telling anybody what to do.”

After Ricks presented his recommendations to the Jekyll Island Authority last November, Newell told its board members to expect protesters “with arrows through their heads and ketchup on them” if they authorized deer hunting.

“I don’t see bloody carcasses coming off the island as something we want to do,” Newell said.

Jekyll Island spokesman Eric Garvey said the board wants to wait for the second round of studies, which may not come until next year, before ruling out any options for controlling the deer population.

“The reaction to the hunting, both gun and bow hunting, was negative both from our board and from the public,” Garvey said. “I think we would look at other options besides hunting first.”

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LeopoldT
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LeopoldT 04/14/12 - 09:09 pm
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Nice coverage by Mr. Bynum of

Nice coverage by Mr. Bynum of a story that is of great interest to people who often visit Jekyll Island and love to see deer families enjoying the island. What I find most interesting about Bynum's story is that it shines some light on the wild guess put forth by the DNR that Jekyll has 712 deer and on the DNR conclusion that lethal means are required to thin the herd to 'acceptable' levels, meaning by some 70%. If the DNR survey were correct, a deer population of the size claimed would have consumed virtually all of the edible vegetation on the island long ago. Further, I have to ask, has the DNR ever done a deer count any where without concluding that there are too many deer and they should be 'harvested' by hunters?
The Jekyll Island Authority is on target (no pun intended) in stating that additional study is needed before a rational and effective deer management program can be established. A least the JIA isn't willing to deal with Jekyll's deer population by jumping the gun, or the arrow, as the DNR appears willing to do.

EmilyD
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EmilyD 04/15/12 - 12:51 pm
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Great news that Jekyll Island

Great news that Jekyll Island finally has a Conservation Director and that he has been assigned to study the deer issue before any precipitous actions are taken. As a frequent visitor, I have a hard time believing there are over 700 deer present, and no matter what the final real number is, great care should be taken before any culling is permitted. As JI resident Newell noted: any way you slice it, killing deer in a state park would be a PR nightmare.

doryingram
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doryingram 04/15/12 - 06:12 pm
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Recently I was talking to a

Recently I was talking to a colleague who told me that she hadn't visited Jekyll Island since she was a child growing up on St. Simons. She said that the primary thing she remembered about Jekyll Island is that at that time, "Deer were everywhere!" This colleague is probably in her 50's now. A statement like hers indicates to me that deer have always been abundant on Jekyll Island, and that perhaps deer regulate their own populations in some way and/or the overpopulation problem has been overestimated and overstated by the DNR. At any rate, I do not believe that hunting of any kind has any place in a state park, and I have a sense that the JIA recognizes that hunting on Jekyll is both a danger and a public relations problem of major proportions. Much credit is due the JIA for their hesitation to take action at this time and to wait until further and more extensive studies can be done.

Loves Jekyll
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Loves Jekyll 04/17/12 - 11:06 am
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It is very sad to learn that

It is very sad to learn that the JIA is still talking about possibly culling the deer herd on Jekyll Island through lethal means, even though it may be kept for the last. How strange to consider culling through hunting an option even before a proper long-range study has been done to determine whether the deer are creating any problem!

It is good of Russ Bynum to write this balanced article to show how much the public cares about the deer. Indeed, the deer are a precious part of what Jekyll has to offer visitors as well as residents and are loved by all.

Ironically, even if the DNR’s earlier claim about eighty deer per square mile was actually found on the island in new studies, that is not too many deer. There are many websites (for example, http://www.wildlifeatkiawah.com/deer.html) which state that annual counts of deer can range from forty to ninety per square mile and be considered normal. These websites also explain that hunting does NOT reduce deer overpopulation over time. The remaining herd gets stronger and multiplies very quickly, and it is best to leave them alone.

As other readers have posted, deer have always been abundant on the island and they have never been a problem. Instead they are cherished by the public, both visitors and residents. So let us all join in asking the JIA to please leave the deer on Jekyll Island alone!

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