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Juli Charkes Headshot

The Deer Hunter, Westchester Style

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For anyone handy with a bow and arrow there is good news: Westchester needs you. The county is counting on a few good marksmen to help rid the area of deer herd that are roaming the area, ruining vegetation and testing the patience of even those inclined towards Bambi sentiment.

As my son noted while approaching the group of deer that regularly makes a morning pit stop in our back yard before luxuriating on the lawn, "Why aren't they afraid of anyone?"

Probably because they know among the beasts here they have the majority rule. Westchester is teeming with white-tailed deer -- more than 60 per square mile in one park area, according to wildlife experts. That's about five times the number that can be managed for a county this size.

Hoping to curb a population boom that many associate with increased rates of Lyme disease and loss of biodiversity, county officials have tried various tactics including the expansion of the deer hunting season that now runs ten weeks instead of eight.

Yet still they multiply. It turns out the species is particularly adept at adapting their fertility rates to available food sources (of which there is an abundance in a county carved out of natural vegetation and populated by enthusiastic gardeners). A lack of natural predators that might temper deer population growth has also meant a booming birth rate.

In response, Westchester has decided it will allow bow hunters to take their best shot at deer roaming in a designated 850 acres of county parkland beginning this November.

The move follows a lengthy task force study released last year and has the support of local hunters like Doug Erickson, president of the Westchester Bowhunters Association.

Mr Erickson describes the hunting of deer using a bow and arrow as an effective and humane method of eliminating an unwanted member of the population - at least when executed by those with competency in the method. If performed correctly - which means aiming at a target the size of a tack that is situated near a vital organ - the animal expires in about ten to twenty seconds due to blood loss.

There is also the question of safety of the human kind. Bow hunting allows for a range of 40 yards at the most. "We're not talking about hunting in large woods or mountains," Mr. Erickson says. "This is a short-range weapon, so in tighter quarters, like suburban plots, the risk of an accident goes way down."

Not everyone sees the benefit of bows for stalking and shooting at animals for the purpose of population control, particularly when there are other methods like sterilization and birth control.

"It's an easy out," says Laura Simon, the urban wildlife director at the Humane Society of the United States who served on the Westchester task force charged with looking at ways to curb deer population.

Simon remains opposed to bow hunting and not only for the humane factor (some studies show it has a high crippling rate compared to other methods such as sharp shooting and when it goes wrong, as it did several years ago on Fire Island, the method is unquestionably cruel to the animal), but also because she questions whether plucking out a certain number of deer will have any long term effect on the ecosystem. Deer can both control the spread of certain invasive plants while helping to proliferate others, according to a report Simon presented to county officials.

"Biodiversity loss is a huge, complex problem due to a lot factors including human impact, acid rain and climate issues," she says.

In the meantime, Westchester is proceeding with its bow hunting recruitment, holding tryouts next month in which interested parties will have to prove residency along with a skill set that includes the ability to hit a 9-inch target at a distance of 25 yards three out of three tries.

Officials say they will allow up to 50 designated hunters to begin shooting in November with some 15 additional hunters to serve as alternatives.

That might seem a high number of skilled hunter slots to fill until you consider that Mr. Erickson's group already has some 100 registered bow hunters, any one of whom, he says, would have the right stuff for the job at hand. "There won't be any problem finding available hunters," he said. "I expect we'll have a long waiting list."