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Jekyll Island deer an attraction, maybe a problem

In this Oct. 13, 2010, file photo, two deer peer out from the underbrush bordering Pine Lakes golf course on Jekyll Island, Ga. Often spotted chewing leaves by roadsides and at the edge of golf course fairways, deer have become such a common sight on Jekyll Island they're almost something of a tourist attraction.

In this Oct. 13, 2010, file photo, two deer peer out from the underbrush bordering Pine Lakes golf course on Jekyll Island, Ga. Often spotted chewing leaves by roadsides and at the edge of golf course fairways, deer have become such a common sight on Jekyll Island they're almost something of a tourist attraction.

SAVANNAH — Tourists on Jekyll Island pull over to snap photos of them grazing by the roads, while island residents leave corn for the four-legged whitetails in their yards. As the sun goes down over the Georgia coast, golfers often see does and their fawns watching from the trees along the fairways.

"I went to dinner for Easter at a friend's house, and I looked out the window and said, 'You have seven deer in your backyard,'" said Bonnie Newell, a nurse and longtime resident of the island that doubles as a state park. "And he said, 'Yes, I feed them.'"

Nobody on Jekyll Island disputes that it has an abundance of white-tailed deer. But a recent study by the state Department of Natural Resources has raised a pair of troubling questions: Does the 7-mile island near Brunswick have too many? And if so, should hunters be allowed to thin the herd?

The Jekyll Island Authority, which governs the state-owned island, in early April ordered its new conservation manager to take a closer look after a DNR survey estimated its total deer population at 712 — or 80 per square mile. The agency's report suggested a sustainable number would be about 30 deer per square mile.

But what's troubled residents most is the report's recommendation that Jekyll Island consider allowing bow hunters to deal with the problem, or hire professional sharpshooters if hunting is deemed unsafe.

"We got a ton of feedback from people opposed to the possibility of having even regulated hunting on the island," said David Egan, a resident and leader of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. "The deer are like one of the amenities on the island. People drive around at night trying to spot them and bring their kids out to look for them."

Egan said he doubts the accuracy of the DNR survey, though he sees plenty of deer like everybody else. When playing golf in the late afternoons, he said, he'll often spot between 20 and 40 whitetails in the woods near the edge of the fairways.

Hunting has long been banned on Jekyll Island, once a getaway owned by wealthy American industrialists before the state of Georgia bought it in 1947. As a state park, the island is beloved for its commitment to conservation. State law dictates that 65 percent of its land remain undeveloped. The island has a hospital for sick and injured sea turtles and a program using radio-transmitting tags to study rattlesnakes rather than kill them.

Deer can be a problem if their numbers swell beyond their habitat's ability to support them. They can wipe out plants they depend on for food, and grow thin and sickly from not getting enough to eat. In populated areas, they can be a traffic hazard to drivers.

Hunters and sharpshooters are a common means of culling deer populations. Last year, both were dispatched in southeast Minnesota to hunt 900 deer after state officials feared an outbreak of a fatal brain disease. The city of Jackson, Mich., brought in sharp shooters in January to kill 80 deer at a city park and golf course after residents complained the animals were damaging property and causing car wrecks.

Ben Carswell, who became Jekyll Island's conservation manager in March, said more detailed studies need to be done before anybody can say for sure that the island has too many deer.

He plans to try to replicate the DNR's survey, which estimated the population by counting deer using a spotlight while driving at slow speeds during three nights last fall, while doing additional studies to determine if the island's deer are unhealthy and if plants they use for food are being consumed at unsustainable rates.

"It's not like all of a sudden we have too many deer out here. The population has probably built slowly over time," Carswell said. "We want to make sure we do a thorough job and take our time rather than make a gut decision."

If he finds Jekyll Island does have too many deer, there aren't many non-lethal options for reducing the population.

Georgia law prohibits trapping deer and transporting them elsewhere. There is a drug that works as deer birth control that's been approved by state agencies for use in New Jersey and Maryland, but it has to be given to female deer as an injection — making it a costly option that's difficult to administer to large populations.

Will Ricks, the DNR wildlife biologist who conducted the Jekyll Island survey, said he suggested bow hunting because "it's quieter, safer, less invasive, just better for situations where there are a lot of people around" compared to hunting with rifles.

The U.S. Department Agriculture also offers state wildlife agencies literal guns for hire — trained sharpshooters capable of thinning overabundant deer herds within a few days.

"I presented those potential options. At the end of the day that's not for me to decide," Ricks said. "I certainly wasn't telling anybody what to do."

After Ricks presented his recommendations to the Jekyll Island Authority last November, Newell told its board members to expect protesters "with arrows through their heads and ketchup on them" if they authorized deer hunting.

"I don't see bloody carcasses coming off the island as something we want to do," Newell said.

Jekyll Island spokesman Eric Garvey said the board wants to wait for the second round of studies, which may not come until next year, before ruling out any options for controlling the deer population.

"The reaction to the hunting, both gun and bow hunting, was negative both from our board and from the public," Garvey said. "I think we would look at other options besides hunting first."