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Editorial: Club makes a valid point: Deer population out of control

Oct. 15, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

It's easy to understand why a Huntington garden club is calling for action to stem the damage caused by deer to area plants and flowers, as well as the health threats posed to motorists and children.

Probably most of us, including residents living in Huntington, have had gardens damaged by deer and either hit a deer with our vehicles or had close calls while on the highway.

But conducting an urban deer hunt in Huntington, as proposed by the Inwood Garden Club, is probably not the best answer. While it might cull the deer population to some extent, the dangers posed to residents would outweigh the benefits.

But the club's larger point -- the deer population in this region is out of control, to the point that deer are roaming urban areas -- is well taken. Agencies with the responsibility of controlling the deer population, including the Division of Natural Resources in West Virginia, should take note and step up their efforts.

It may be difficult to believe nowadays, but a century ago the deer population for the entire state was estimated at about 1,000, according to the DNR. Contrast that to today. Last fall, hunters in Cabell County alone killed more than 1,600 deer, part of a statewide harvest of more than 130,000 of the animals. Yet, the area remains overrun with deer.

Much of this growth over the past century has to do with steps to protect what was in the early 1900s a relatively endangered population. Restrictions were placed on commercial hunting of deer, and limitations on sports hunting were instituted to allow the deer population to become healthier. Clearly, those limitations have worked.

Other factors also have come into play. The populations of some of deer's natural predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, have declined sharply. In addition, fewer property owners allow hunting on their lands and the spread of housing into forested areas has meant less property where hunting is legal or permitted.

Now, officials estimate that the nation's deer population has grown to well over 20 million, and we're seeing the results. According to the DNR, it has been estimated that in the United States deer damage a total of $100 million of agricultural crops, $750 million of forest regeneration, and cause $1 billion damage in deer vehicle accidents annually.

According to State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., deer-related vehicle crashes totaled 1.22 million in the 12 months ended June 30, causing an average of $3,414 in property damage per accident. West Virginians know all too well the impact of this carnage; for the seventh straight year, it led the nation in deer-vehicle collisions, State Farm said. In the coming year, one in every 41 Mountain State motorists is likely to hit a deer.

There are no easy answers to this problem. Landowners themselves play a role in determining whether they will allow hunting on their lands and whether the intent should be to promote the harvest of antlerless deer to help reduce deer population. And homeowners can take steps, through the use of fencing and other means, to discourage deer from damaging their plants.

However, since the DNR and its peer agencies in other states have the lion's share of control over hunting, the bulk of the burden falls on those agencies. They should look closely at their hunting regulations to determine whether more can be done. Likewise, they play the key role in educating members of the public about steps that they can take to help control the problem.

It's becoming clearer year after year that more aggressive steps are needed.