Deer Vaccinated Against Pregnancy

A variety of contraceptive plans could help curb an exploding deer population in areas of upstate New York, researchers say.

A $500,000 research study in Cayuga Heights, which borders Cornell University’s campus, shows birth control for deer is possible, although still not a cheap or immediate solution to overpopulation.

A four-year study at the former Seneca Army Depot on a captive herd showed about an 85 percent decrease in fawns, said Paul Curtis, a wildlife biologist at Cornell University.

In another study, deer contraceptives were successfully delivered by dart guns in suburban Rochester. A three-year trial showed scientists could vaccinate if deer were relatively tame and biologists had access to flat, open land where darting didn’t threaten people or animals.

Birth Control in Tomatoes?

An estimated 1 million white-tailed deer now roam around the state, biologists believe. At the same time, the number of hunters is on the decline.

Problems with burgeoning population include increased car-deer collisions and deer foraging in suburban yards, gardens and nurseries, creating a nuisance and eating some cash crops.

There were 493,000 hunting licenses issued in 1998, down from a high of 700,000 in 1981.

To help stem the population, scientists also are researching the possibility of putting contraceptives into food, a concept being tested at the National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado and in Ithaca, N.Y. One scientist has genetically altered tomatoes to include a contraceptive and that science could be used in the field to eventually control populations of animals, including Canadian geese, prairie dogs and coyotes.

Any vaccine would work by preventing egg fertilization and would require boosters every year or two.

First, Catch Them

The expensive part is catching deer to inject the vaccine or darting them. The Seneca Army Depot study was based on confined deer, and experts say it will be much more expensive in the wild.

But Curtis found in a study this year that the home range for female deer in Cayuga Heights is 80 to 150 acres, so birth control could have an impact even where deer aren’t fenced. He figures the maximum range would be a couple of square miles. Cayuga Heights, at 1.8 square miles, is small and densely populated with about 70 deer per square mile, 30 percent more than New York’s average.

Because it might be cheaper, scientists also are discussing surgically sterilizing does using donated time from the college veterinary staff. The cost is about $200 per deer for the 10-minute, one-time procedure compared with about $250 per deer for each vaccination.