by Nicole Rivard

Did you know that The Nature Conservancy is allowing deer to be hunted at Devil’s Den nature preserve in Redding and Weston?

The Nature Conservancy calls itself a science-based organization concerned with protecting plants and animals but there doesn’t seem to be anything scientific about its upcoming limited deer hunt (Nov. 20-Dec. 10) at Devil’s Den nature preserve. Until Devil’s Den operates like a nature preserve, allowing nature to take its course, and prohibits these deer hunts, Friends of Animals encourages people to stop donating to the Nature Conservancy. You can also express your opposition to The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Chapter byto Dave Gumbart assistant director of land management, or calling 203-568-6290, and demand a public hearing before next hunting season.

In its Oct. 31 press release, the Nature Conservancy, which has been allowing these hunts since 2001, says the size of the deer herd in Fairfield County varies from town to town; and in 2000, best estimates of deer abundance were in the range of 60 individuals per square mile, higher than in any other county in Connecticut. They claim that the high density of deer in southwestern Connecticut has been associated with a high incidence of deer-and-vehicle accidents and Lyme disease cases. The Nature Conservancy says it has been particularly concerned about the ecological damage to the region’s forests caused by the excessive browsing of overabundant deer.

Wouldn’t a science-based organization be aware of the latest data and know that in 2012, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s fly-over deer count in Fairfield County showed a marked reduction in the deer population, down to about 40 deer per square mile since it’s last count, according to a recent article in the Connecticut Post.

And while deer motor vehicle collisions have decreased, data from the Connection Department of Public Health shows the number of Lyme Disease cases (confirmed and probable) on the rise again in Fairfield County since they dropped off in 2009. In 2009, there were 699 cases; in 2010, 334; in 2011, 305; and in 2012, 357.

The scientists at the Nature Conservancy also seem to be unaware of a 2006 study conducted at Penn State University showing that deer exclusion in smaller areas is likely to amplify ticks and produce tick-borne disease hotspots where rodents are ubiquitous. They also seem oblivious to the work being done by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. In a recent Huffington Post article, senior scientist Richard S. Ostfeld says, “What we’ve found is that white-footed mice are the most important hosts in producing infected ticks. Eastern chipmunks and both short-tailed shrews and masked shrews also produce quite a few infected ticks. Pretty much all the other things we’ve studied, including gray squirrels, red squirrels, flying squirrels, opossums, raccoons, skunks, deer, robins, veeries, wood thrush, and gray catbirds, are much less important in producing infected ticks. These animals kill lots of ticks when they groom themselves, and the ticks that do survive and successfully feed on them do not get infected. So, these species largely play protective roles when it comes to human risk of Lyme disease.”

Furthermore, if Fairfield County residents believe a smaller deer population means less chance of Lyme Disease, they may become less vigilant in taking preventative measures when they go outdoors, which is unsafe, according to the Center for Disease Control.

The Nature Conservancy has never done its own study on how many deer actually live in Devil’s Den, nor has it consulted the preserve’s neighbors or its members — members who support the organization because the Den’s brochure reads hunting is prohibited and who will be unable to visit the Den for 11 weekdays.

Friends of Animals protests the Nature Conservancy’s scapegoating of deer under the guise of preserving plants while giving itself and its land over to hunting interests. Friends of Animals advocates for other methods to protect areas from heavy browsing, like fencing that can inconspicuously protect sensitive plants inside the preserve. In its own press release, The Nature Conservancy says it has seen the reappearance of such¬† species as bloodroot and pink lady slipper and that young oaks and shrubs such as pink azalea and maple-leaved viburnum are able to grow. If that’s true and the hunts have been a success, why continue them?