OLEAN — Are there too many deer in Olean?
Rising populations — and rising complaints — have led to city officials considering how to handle deer in a city where hunting is prohibited.
Ryan Rockefeller, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Allegany, last week presented some of the deer control plans open to the Common Council’s city operations committee.
“I don’t have the recommendation, but I do have several options,” Rockefeller said, with ideas ranging from opening less-dense areas of the city to hunting to surgical sterilization.
Committee Chairman Nate Smith, R-Ward 6, said he has received many complaints from residents over the deer population. Smith’s ward, which encompasses most of West Olean, includes large wooded areas along the Allegheny River.
When contacted on Monday, Smith said that there have been no formal studies of deer in West Olean, but neighbors agree the numbers are climbing.
“The deer population has increased in the last 10 years in the west end,” he said. “There were always a lot of deer — now there’s even more.”
Alderman Linda Witte, D-Ward 1, said the biggest concern in her ward — which also had large wooded areas — is Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by deer ticks.
“Deer are one of the best sources of a blood meal for ticks,” Rockefeller said. “Higher deer density means higher tick populations.”
The deer themselves do not get sick, he added, but the disease spreads from small mammals like rats and raccoons to young ticks, which then latch on to deer to get the sustenance they need to procreate.
Olean is not alone, Rockefeller said. Human-created brushland around suburban development is ideal deer habitat, and a combination of fewer hunters and less land to hunt on have led to deer population explosions statewide.
“Suburbia is a deer haven if left unchecked,” he said, and many residents like seeing deer — but the residents can become part of the problem. “It can take only a couple of neighbors throwing out cracked corn for squirrels before a couple of deer show up. And then it’s four or five deer and then they get accustomed to humans.”
Hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century, the deer in the region are generally descendants of deer relocated to the area from Michigan in the 1920s. However, the original predators of deer — wolves and mountain lions — are no longer present. Predators like coyotes and black bears, Rockefeller said, target the young and the elderly deer, and not the virile adults.
“Which is what you have to take in order to control the deer population,” he said.
With several options available to control growth, the least expensive — in terms of handling regulatory hurdles and paying for culling — would be to allow archery hunting inside the city during regular seasons.
“A deer manager’s silver bullet is the deer hunter,” Rockefeller said, with around 250,000 deer taken every year in the state by hunters. “Hunters are surprisingly efficient in controlling the deer numbers — that’s the primary predator for the white-tailed deer anymore.”
As state law requires setbacks of at least 500 feet from structures unless the property owner agrees, hunting would be limited to the less developed areas in the city, Rockefeller said. Most arrows lose momentum within 75 yards, he added, and with additional restrictions — like requiring tree stands or other elevated firing positions — safety could be even better ensured.
“It’s safe, and it’s getting even safer,” he said, with around 4.3 injuries out of every 100,000 hunters afield, “and it’s mostly self-inflicted.”
Another option would be to create a management plan and create a formal deer cull for the late winter months with DEC permits issued to hunters. A more costly option would be to hire sharpshooters or task city police with the job of culling deer in a similar fashion.
The most expensive option — and one that is the least likely to work long-term, Rockefeller said — would be to sterilize the deer through surgical or chemical contraceptive means.
Any of the animals killed could end up as food for those in need.
“Often, they’re donated through the Venison Donation Coalition,” Rockefeller said.
Through the program, deer are taken to local meat processors who at a discounted rate process the animals into 1-pound ground venison packages which are then distributed through local food pantries.
Smith said that he hopes to keep the discussion moving forward.
“We have so many deer we need to start with a culling effort,” he said. “I will keep pushing on it — I don’t want it to fall through the cracks.”
Smith said he would like to see an effort begin in the next year or two, but expects to see a long-term plan for deer management developed.
“What that ends up looking like will be a combined effort of the council, the mayor and the department heads,” he added.