Managing Jekyll Island’s Deer Population:
How Best to Proceed?

At the November 14, 2011 board meeting of the Jekyll Island State Park Authority, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources presented a report on the status of Jekyll’s deer population. Based on a four-night spotlight survey of three locales on the island, the report concluded that Jekyll Island has 712 deer, or 80 deer per square mile, and that the deer are depleting the supply of their preferred plant species. The report also claimed that most Jekyll deer are thin and in poor health, and that “death by starvation has been seen on Jekyll Island.”

On the basis of this data and these claims, the report recommended reducing the deer population to 20-30 per square mile (or by roughly 500 deer) through the use of bow and arrow hunting and/or sharpshooters.

The report ruled out deer contraception as an option on the grounds that it’s too expensive and not fully effective. It also pointed out that trap and relocation, which has been suggested by some people, is not an option, as it’s currently illegal in Georgia.

It is important to note here that no one – including the DNR – has statistics showing the population pattern for Jekyll’s deer herd over a prolonged period of time. What we have is a snapshot – and a rather sketchy one at that - of the current size and condition of the island’s deer population and a supposition that what is seen now indicates a linear progression dictating what’s in store for Jekyll’s deer. The possibility that the island’s deer population may have experienced ups and downs over the years, and may be self-regulating to a fair degree, is not considered.

Similarly, no studies have been done over time to establish a fact-based pattern for deer feeding on Jekyll Island. Areas where deer-palatable food is typically scarce may now look like they’re being picked clean; the story may well be different in areas where preferred food is more plentiful, such as at the island’s landfill or within/along the natural areas on Jekyll’s golf courses.  Moreover, the pattern in both areas is likely to have been impacted by the prolonged drought that southeast Georgia has been experiencing, which means that the pattern we see now may not be a good predictor of what’s to come.

This is not to deny that Jekyll’s deer population is currently taxing the available food supply but rather to suggest that more than a short-term browse study of a handful of locations is needed as a foundation for a prudent deer management program. 

Also absent are significant statistics showing that Jekyll deer are dying of starvation, as the DNR report claims. Reportedly, some deer autopsies have been performed (how many and when, we do not know) that show malnutrition but, once again, there are no figures based on long-term study.

Particularly problematic is the bow and arrow solution proposed by the DNR for reducing the deer population. First off, there is no documented, urgent need to resolve the deer population problem; no need for a preemptive strike against a deer population that might be managed through practices other than bow and arrow killings. Even if there were a deer problem requiring immediate attention, bow and arrow hunts typically bring with them the sight of deer roaming around with arrows sticking out of their bodies; in fact, estimates of the percentage of deer who suffer such a fate in bow and arrow hunts range from 15% to as high as 50%. Forgetting the suffering that wounded deer go through, the site of arrowed deer staggering around Jekyll Island would repulse many tourists and island residents as well and would no doubt affect the Jekyll Island Authority negatively.  (Click here for graphic photos.)

The Jekyll Island Authority has stated that it will evaluate the information presented in the DNR report and develop an appropriate deer population management strategy in the near future. For this, the JIA was criticized in a recent Brunswick News editorial, which fully endorsed the DNR report and urged immediate action by the Authority.

Obviously, wise conservation stewardship, including the management of wildlife populations, should be based on long-term, comprehensive studies and detailed analysis. This is the case in other public lands in the southeast and should be true for Jekyll Island State Park as well.

By way of example, consider the deer management programs being practiced at Kiawah Island, SC and Fire Island, NY.

Also of value is wildlife biologist Timothy Mallow’s 2003 comprehensive study of white-tailed deer management practices at a host of public land sites in the southeast.  Among Mallow’s more interesting contentions is that deer populations have been self-regulating for centuries, “When deer numbers reach saturation in a landscape, reproduction decreases as a result of food limitations and this leads to a reduction in deer numbers…. Animals regulate their own populations in this way, based upon available food and habitat… It is a cyclic event experienced by many species.”

Media Coverage of Deer Management Program.