CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt stopped on his way to the bathroom at Town Hall on Monday to thank a young girl for voicing her opinion on the local deer population.
"Thank you for coming tonight," he said, hunched over.
"I'm 5, and I know you don't kill deer," Daisy Mozgala said.
"Please don't kill Bambi," her mother, Debbie Mozgala, pleaded.
Kleinschmidt gave a helpless, paralyzed look; fitting for a night spent more on emotion than fact.
Earlier in the evening the Mozgalas spoke at the public forum on a "Potential Urban Deer Hunt inside Chapel Hill's Corporate Limits,” at which Mozgala pointed to her daughter's brown hair.
"She may blend in and be mistaken for game," Mozgala said.
Hyperbolic or sensational examples — like the woman waving a plush, stuffed tick above her head and telling the audience that it could "get into your heart and brains" or the resident who claims to have “a deer superhighway in my backyard” — and personal gardening and recreational preferences won the night’s debate over whether to allow bow hunting of deer inside the town limits.
Despite three hours of testimony from more than 20 residents and experts, the council did essentially nothing. They passed a resolution asking town staff to determine the process for conducting a deer census, to analyze recent losses of vegetation and to present a range of options to cull the herd.
It was clear to everyone, except Councilwoman Laurin Easthom, who doesn't want to know anything more about bowhunting, that they lacked data to make a decision.
It's been 13 months since the first person petitioned the council to address the deer population, which, residents say, is expanding exponentially. And still, council says it doesn't have enough information.
They have now heard from their Sustainability Committee (which recommended this forum), the Parks and Recreation Department (they suggested a campaign for fences and deer-resistant plants) and the Chapel Hill Police (they will continue to monitor deer-induced car accidents, which decreased in 2009, but they don't favor flying arrows).
Council members have looked to their neighbors at the Governor's Club, Duke Forest and Pittsboro for examples of deer-thinning programs. They have heard from state biologists, doctors, hunters and from countless emotional residents.
"The more information I get, the more confused I am," Councilman Gene Pease admitted.
Namely they still need to know how many deer they have, to what extent it’s a problem for plants and safety, how, and if, they can do anything about it and what it will cost.
Spending a long time hearing from each side is not always the same as studying an issue thoroughly, and dawdling does come at a cost.
Although town officials didn’t know if they wanted a bowhunting program, they still applied by the April 1 deadline to conduct a 2011 urban hunt. They figured that would give them leeway in case they did want to go forward. However, they didn't know until the forum Monday that their application meant they would be included in a journal as a town that's friendly to bow hunters.
Luckily, town spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko, says the town won’t be included in the journal after the revelation.
"There's no way that should have shocked them," said Kindra Mammone, who rehabilitates baby deer at Claws, a nonprofit wildlife center outside of Chapel Hill and says she’s seen deer look both ways before crossing the street. "If that shocked them, I wonder what other information they don't have."
Here's what the town knows so far:
-Deer give birth twice a year, so the population is growing, they just don’t know to what extent locally. North Carolina is home to 1.25 million deer. That’s one for every 7.4 people.
-The population will renew within a year, even if it’s wiped out completely.
"Hunting should be viewed as a long-term approach. It's not something you do a year or two and stop,” said George Strader, of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Added Easthom, “Deer are going to eventually come back because we certainly don’t have a wall up.”
-The Wildlife Resources Commission began its urban deer hunting program four years ago. Towns must apply and designate hunting locations. The hunt lasts four weeks in late December and early January and killed animals must be registered. Strader says four towns have taken part and he's heard positive feedback.
-The state veterinarian, Carl Williams, told the town council that despite what one might think, no study has linked a decrease in deer to a decrease in tick-borne disease.
“In theory it should work, but to the best of my knowledge, I have not read that,” he said.
-There are other methods to cull the herd or prevent disease, including the four-poster system, which attracts deer with corn and then paints a “tickicide” on their backs with rollers. Trapping and relocation won’t work, Strader said, because they don’t want to spread disease from one area to another.
-The Governors Club hunt in December and January only claimed seven deer, but deeply divided the community. One Governors Club resident, Lisa Grace, said she was told to “move to Cuba” for opposing the program. (Deer season is year-round in Cuba; according to a blog by naturalist Arthur Grossett, white-tailed deer was introduced into Cuba in the 1930s in an attempt to attract hunters from the U.S.)
“We did not move here to have our son raised in a hunting preserve,” she said of the gated community just outside of Chapel Hill town limits.
-Bows and arrows claimed 86 deer in Duke Forest this year. It was the second year bowhunters have been contracted to thin the population there.
“We’re pretty confident that we’re way above recommended sustainable population levels,” resource manager Judson Edeburn said.
He said the forest has 60 deer per square mile in some places, and they want to see only 20 to 30, with maintaining native plant life highlighted as the main issue.
Hunters are given five pages of guidelines, and the forest is closed to the public four or five days a week from September to December.
“We have gotten questions from people who may not agree, but we think we’ve done our homework,” Edeburn said.
Still, it will take a few years before they can measure the true effectiveness of the program.
Lazorko says the town is tentatively scheduled to hold the next deer discussion on May 19 or June 16. The council goes on a summer hiatus from June 21 to September 13.