HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. (The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News) — By his own admission, Mark Feaster's yard is "ground zero" for the deer roaming this village of almost 2 square miles.
Numerous tracks and a peppering of deer droppings on his lawn were ample evidence of his assessment. So were the four or five deer lounging beneath the forsythia bushes on a recent day. That was a relatively small crowd. On a previous Sunday, Feaster counted 23 animals on his third of an acre.
"I could hear them clomping all winter long on the snow," he said.
Those animals are among what some estimate to be as many as 120 deer living in Hastings-on-Hudson. They are consuming residents' plantings, munching away on parks and other green pockets in the small village, and posing a risk to drivers, officials said.
To reduce those numbers, Hastings is trying to keep its female deer from getting pregnant by injecting them with a contraceptive vaccine. That has researchers from the Humane Society of the United States cruising the village's streets. Their search for deer takes place among rumbling sanitation trucks, dog walkers and commuters scurrying toward the train station.
"Between that house, that house and your house," said the society's Rick Naugle, gesturing around Feaster's neighborhood, "this is a really good place (for deer)."
About 200 homeowners have signed up to allow Naugle and Kayla Grams to pursue deer through their yards, some walking up to the researchers' Nissan SUV to ask to be on the list. Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski said officials are seeking about 200 more so the pair can move freely about.
The study is among the first to test the vaccine in an area where deer can freely enter or exit. Previous efforts focused on island populations or places with limited access.
"This is a lot like hunting. You have to figure out where they're at and how to get close enough to get shots at them," said Naugle, who has been studying deer and their reproduction since 1994.
The undertaking is the latest aimed at controlling Westchester's deer population. Suburbia can be paradise for deer, experts say, because of few predators, little hunting and lots to eat on golf courses, in gardens and in parks.
The Teatown Lake Reservation in Yorktown recently enlisted specially trained biologists to shoot 11 deer. Some Westchester County parks and the Mianus River Gorge Preserve have used bow hunters to reduce their deer numbers.
The mayor said lethal options aren't possible in the densely populated village because of laws limiting hunting, as well as public opposition.
"My decision to pursue this is ultimately a practical one. If it works, we will finally have accomplished what other communities have failed to do and found a non-lethal approach to the deer issue that would work in a dense village like ours," Swiderski said.
Swiderski said the five-year study, which also involves the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass., will cost the village about $10,000 this year and possibly less next year.
Researchers hope to treat 60 deer this year and during the next two winters, and to continue to monitor them. Captured does — tranquilized first with a drug-filled dart — will have a numbered ear tag attached, blood drawn for a pregnancy test and an initial vaccine dose. Known as PZP, the vaccine uses a doe's immune system to stop her eggs from being fertilized.
But after about a week of looking for deer, Naugle and Grams had tagged and treated just one. They can fire at deer no more than 20 yards away with their air-powered rifles, and they are still learning where the animals spend their days.
"It's a slow process. But next year, by the time we come back here, we'll have everything figured out," Naugle said.