Jekyll faces overpopulation of deer

The Brunswick News

November 15, 2011

Jekyll Island is overrun with white tail deer, and state and island officials are looking for a way to deal with the problem.

Allowing bow hunters on the island might be the solution, it has been suggested.

Jekyll Island is home to more than 700 of the deer, a number that is far higher than the landscape can handle, said Will Ricks, assistant regional supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The department recently completed a study of the deer to help the Jekyll Island Authority form a comprehensive conservation management plan for dealing with the animal's population.

"That's about one deer for every eight acres, or about 82 deer per square mile," Ricks said. "That is too high of a population and is certainly a number higher than the island can sustain."

The three-day survey focused on counting the deer and identifying where the animals commonly congregate. Finding that information wasn't difficult because the animals "are everywhere," Ricks said.

Primarily, deer were seen eating vegetation on the island golf courses, near its marshes and sand dunes, and around residential gardens.

While conducting the survey, Ricks found a total of 712 white tail deer, with 121 bucks, 463 does and 128 fawns. Of those, most are of breeding age, meaning the problem could worsen, he said.

The large population poses several risks to the animals and to humans, he said. The island has limited resources and not enough food to keep the deer properly nourished. Additionally, the animals are crowded by human life and do not have the space required for adequate maturation.

The deer also cause problems to expensive landscapes like the island's golf courses and gardens, Ricks said.

The animals pose several human safety concerns, as well, said Terry Norton, executive director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and the person leading the charge for a conservation plan. Large, unhealthy deer populations can be hot-beds for rabies, ring worm and tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Too many deer also create issues for drivers and disturb traffic flows, Norton said.

"For the overall ecology and health of the island, the deer population needs to decrease," Ricks said.

The island is not alone. Several state parks across Georgia have also encountered deer overpopulation and have successfully fought the problem.

Permitting bow hunting in the parks has proven to be a solution that bodes well for hunters and park residents, Ricks said.

"It would take a lot of planning, and there are many logistics to work out, but bow hunting has been very successful in other places and would be the best option for Jekyll," Ricks said.

It could also help the island's bottom-line. The authority could determine who could hunt with bows via a lottery. Hunters would pay a fee to have their names added to it.

"In other areas, they have had a quota on how many hunters are allowed, and the park is in control of the times for the hunts," Ricks said. "This is a very safe and very popular way of handling this issue."

Bow hunting may be an ideal and attractive solution for managing the island's massive deer population, but it is not a possibility likely to take shape just yet, said Jones Hooks, executive director of the authority.

It will take months of planning and ongoing coordination between the authority and natural resource agencies before any hunting is allowed on the state park, Hooks said.

"This is not an idea we can just OK overnight," Hooks said. "I do agree that something needs to happen, but we have a lot of work and research to do before we can implement bow hunting on Jekyll."