JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - Government sharpshooters would be hired to thin the deer population on Jekyll Island - at a cost of about $125 per kill - under a plan approved Monday by the state park's governing board. Some residents cautioned the move would harm the island's reputation as a safe haven for wildlife.
Nobody disagrees that Jekyll Island has an abundance of white-tailed deer. Frequently seen grazing along the roadsides and golf course fairways, they have become something of a tourist attraction at the coastal park. Island officials have been wondering whether to take action for more than three years. Surveys going back to 2011 have shown far too many deer live on the island to support a healthy population.
"The population of the deer herd has been allowed to get out of control," said Bob Krueger, a member of the state park's board, citing surveys that have estimated Jekyll Island has anywhere from 76 to 146 deer per square mile. State wildlife officials say a sustainable number would be about 30 per square mile.
A committee formed to take a closer look at the issue rejected non-lethal forms of population control. Transporting deer to other areas is illegal in Georgia. Birth control injections for females were ruled too costly and experimental. The panel's report settled on professional sharpshooters, or perhaps opening Jekyll Island to hunters, as the only reasonable means of thinning the herd.
The board Monday unanimously accepted the committee's recommendation to hire shooters employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sharpshooters in their first year on the island would kill 80 deer - fewer than 10 percent of one rough estimate of the population by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Some residents say they're horrified Jekyll Island would propose any deer killing at a place beloved for its wildlife conservation efforts. The island has a hospital for sick and injured sea turtles, has a program that uses radio-transmitting tags to study rattlesnakes rather than kill them and uses road signs to caution motorists to slow down for terrapins crossing the street.
"People feel strongly about animals, and this is essentially a sanctuary for wildlife," said David Egan, a resident and leader of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park. "To pick winners and losers like they are doing here doesn't make sense."
Egan and several other residents wore stickers to the board's meeting Monday depicting a deer's head in the crosshairs of a rifle above the plea: "Hold Your Fire."
Ben Carswell, conservation director for Jekyll Island, said he's concerned deer are putting too much strain on plant species by eating up to 5,000 pounds of vegetation a day. A small sample of Jekyll deer examined by veterinarians more than a year ago found several were malnourished.
The board still has to approve details of any plan to hire sharpshooters, who would likely come during the winter when the fewest people are on the island. Carswell said he expects they could do the job in "days, not weeks," but would have to come successive years to effectively reduce the population.
Longtime resident Jean Poleszak said she's worried the plan will tarnish Jekyll Island's reputation as a "family-oriented island and an ecologically oriented island."
"I would hate to see too much speed on something like this that could turn around and bite us," she said.