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Sewer authority discusses herd assessment

BUFORD - In suburban Gwinnett County, the most common place for a deer sighting is often along the side of the road.

But officials have different opinions about what to do with the does and bucks living passively in Gwinnett's greenspaces.

It's a debate that recently showed up at the local Water & Sewerage Authority.

"There seems to be quite a mix of opinions on this topic," said authority member Kevin McOmber during a discussion on whether the authority should ask for a deer herd assessment.

Tommy Hunter, whose name reflects one of his favorite hobbies, asked for the assessment at the F. Wayne Hill Water Reclamation Facility. But the votes failed.

The sewage plant is located in the V formed by the split of Interstates 85 and 985, and its entrance is across the street from the Mall of Georgia.

"It puts us as being proactive and not reactive," Hunter said of the study, explaining that the county could be held liable for car accidents if the deer population is overcrowded. "It's really going to look bad when we have to be reactive."

While the plant is located on about 700 acres of natural land, Water Resources Director Frank Stephens discouraged the board from the study, saying the triangular shape made a deer hunt impractical, especially since the Environmental and Heritage Center will soon open on the site for school field trips.

"If the results indicate overpopulation of deer, that might result in a state-managed deer hunt on the site. I personally do not believe the long, narrow configuration of the site is suitable for hunting," Stephens said, adding that he didn't want to waste taxpayer money if the result would be the same regardless of the study. "We've worked with the state on other incidents where data is generated for data's sake. That's not the best use of limited resources."

Other possible outcomes include relocating a herd or poisoning the animals.

McOmber agreed with Stephens.

"It's not so much that the study is a problem, but if there is a problem, how do we solve it? There isn't a good solution," he said.

Stephens showed the board a map from insurance companies of automobile accidents involving deer in 2004.

With dots located across the county, Stephens said he took that as an indication that the Hill plant's deer population is no larger than others across the county.

But Carol Hassell, a local environmentalist who now works for the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said her organization supports an assessment.

The federation owns the Mill Creek Nature Center, which touches the Hill plant property, and Hassell said she's seen deer herds in the area.

She doesn't know how many but would like to know.

"I think it's very definitely a problem countywide. I see a minimum of five deer on our property on a daily basis," she said, referring to her Suwanee home. "It's a problem - an emerging issue - throughout the county. ... It would be wise for us to determine if that is happening."

Hassell said an assessment should be key in "responsible stewardship of any piece of greenspace."

During the past year, Gwinnett's Community Services Department has been working on an internal study of wildlife in the county.

However, department Director Phil Hoskins said the focus has not been on deer. He said Canadian geese are a bigger issue at county parks than deer.

As part of the study, the department invited University of Georgia students to do an assessment of local habitats, but the students focused more on the foliage than the fauna.

Mike Mengak, a professor in UGA's School of Forestry and Natural Resources, said he is in talks with the county about a follow-up study that would look more closely into wildlife, but that would require night counts and other resources that can't be found in free student labor.

"The problem in all of these situations is who is going to pay for it," he said. "If they perceive a problem, then they need an inventory. They have to know what they've got before they can go from there. An inventory's always a good idea."