Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deer Country: Not Tonight, Dear

Whenever I look out a window and see the current crop of eight fawns, I think, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were an effective, cost-efficient deer birth-control pill.”

After my last “Deer Country” posting, a Howard County Master Gardener sent me an email that said in part, "I just heard that UMD has a deer contraceptive but it must be injected."  I hadn’t heard that news so queried contacts who might know about such a development. 

Phil Norman, Deer Project Manager with the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks, clued me in: “GonaCon is an immunocontraceptive that has been approved for use on wild deer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.”

The welcome news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center over the last few years had developed a new immunocontraceptive vaccine, GonaCon, that is both single-shot and lasts for more than one year.  In controlled, multiple tests on free-ranging does one year or more of age, the vaccine prevented pregnancies 67 to 88 percent the first year and 47 to 48 percent the second year.   A second injection in the same or subsequent year may increase the vaccine’s effectiveness for up to the life of the vaccinated deer.

There is one downside, which I alluded to in my opening question, the vaccine’s cost effectiveness.  To date, it must be manually injected into a deer’s muscle, and that means each deer must be caught first.  Depending on circumstances, that may take the effort and time of a lot of people, which means that though the vaccine itself may be inexpensive, a catch-and-vaccinate program may be expensive.  Estimated costs range from $500 to $1,000 per deer.

But what if we didn’t have to catch the deer and give them a shot?  The NWRC is trying to find an answer to that question by adapting the vaccine so deer can self-medicate by eating treated bait.

Will the vaccine solve our problem of deer over population?  The obvious answer is that it may help keep herds from growing in size, but the infertile deer still will be chowing down on our flowers, shrubs, and vegetable gardens and on the tree seedlings and native flowers in our parks.

The USDA/APIS/NWRC has several online publications about GonaCon that cover many more questions than the two I’ve discussed here.  To link to a recent NWRC fact sheet that will give you additional and more-detailed information, CLICK HERE.

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