What should be done about all the deer in Shelton?

The deer population in Connecticut appears to have peaked in 2000, and has been declining ever since due primarily to more liberal hunting laws in the state.

This is based on annual aerial deer surveys and the number of deer killed in car accidents, which also has been dropping for the past decade or so.

That’s what Howard Kilpatrick, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), told the Shelton Deer Committee at a recent meeting.

“On a statewide basis, we’re probably driving the deer population down,” Kilpatrick said during a presentation at City Hall. “But we still have areas with a growing deer population.”

Shelton is an area where the deer population may still be increasing, partly because limited hunting takes place inside the city.

In Shelton, about 120 deer were killed last year by hunting, car accidents and crop protection (farmers may get licenses to eliminate deer). That compares to the 95 deer killed in Shelton in 1997.

City officials created the Shelton Deer Committee last fall to look into landscaping damage, vehicle collisions, disease issues, and population levels involving the animals.

Negative impact

While many people are fond of deer, the reality is they can cause damage to natural habitat, wreak havoc on gardens, cause deadly vehicle collisions, and spread Lyme disease.

Kilpatrick described them as being “very adaptable to living in different situations,” including forests, meadows, wetlands, and back yards.

He said having too many deer can lead to many problems — and even to starvation among the deer population.

The impact of deer on the ecosystem affects plant life as well as the ability of other animals, such as birds, to survive in an area, he said. Deer are herbivores, eating from five to 10 pounds of plant material a day.

While using repellents to protect yard plants from deer can be relatively effective, he said, deer “will eat anything” if hungry enough — such as during harsh winters when the snow covers the ground for long periods.

Twenty deer a day killed by cars

In 2103, an estimated 7,000 deer were killed in car accidents in Connecticut — or about 20 deer a day.

Kilpatrick said fertility control can play a role in controlling the deer population, but it’s hard to get access to enough deer for this to be a long-term solution.

And while deer are not the only animal blood source for ticks, Kilpatrick said, an adult tick needs the quantity of blood found only on a larger mammal such as a deer to reproduce.

Hunting is best management tool

Kilpatrick said a key to successful deer management is having access to land for hunting.

He said in the past decade or two, more towns and land conservation groups have allowed hunting on their land due to a negative impact from too many deer.

Connecticut has 12 deer hunting zones, with Shelton being in one of the two zones where hunters are allowed to kill more deer because of overpopulation concerns. These two zones essentially cover Fairfield County and the rest of the state’s shoreline areas.

In 1975, each hunter in the state was allowed to kill only one deer during the season. That now is 12 deer, or 18 in the two overpopulated zones. Hunters also may use bait to attract deer in these two zones.

The hunting season has been extended, from two weeks to three weeks long when using shotguns and from four weeks to about eight weeks for archery. In addition, crossbows now are legal.

Nowadays, more deer are killed by hunting than by car collisions in the zone that includes Shelton.

Some restrictions on hunting, too

There are rules to make sure hunting doesn’t interfere with people’s quality of life. Hunters may not shoot a firearm within 500 feet of a structure, and hunting is not allowed on Sundays.

The state has worked to maximize bow hunting in developed areas because there are few places where firearm hunting is allowed due to housing density.

“Bowhunting will be the principal management tool in a surburban/urban environment,” Kilpatrick said.

Other wildlife: Moose, coyote, bear

During a question-and-answer session, questions were raised about other kinds of large wildlife in the state.

Kilpatrick said there were concerns the state’s moose population would begin climbing, once moose began moving into the state in the 1990s.

There now are about 100 moose in Connecticut, but that number isn’t expected to rise much because Connecticut is too warm and doesn’t have as much clear-cut forested areas as northern New England.

“We don’t think we’ll have a lot more moose than we have now because most of Connecticut is a poor environment for them,” Kilpatrick said.

The state’s coyote population also is expected to stay steady because coyotes have occupied all available territories, and they populate based on territorial issues and not access to food, he said.

Kilpatrick is concerned the state’s bear population may continue to climb, noting the DEEP already spends significant time responding to bear nuisance calls.